Category Pelagianism

Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 6) – fini

Where We Stand

Recent studies of Pelagius’ extant writings have questioned his ostracism.[1]    Modern scholars are coming to the opinion that perhaps Augustine attacked Pelagius for teachings that were a corruption of what Pelagius actually taught.  In some instances there is an attempt to integrate the two teachings.[2]   The question seems to be open ended and often the judge and the advocate are the same person, so changing minds is near impossible.

Cross at Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas

What is more critical is the presents of all forms of Pelagianism in most churches today.    Most modern Christians consider their faith something they themselves have chosen.  This leads to extravagant efforts at church growth, increases in ‘church business’ as the function of the congregations, and the never ending chase for more funding of this or that improvement.  None of which may be the will of God and almost always leaves Jesus out of consideration.[3]

In their introduction, Packer and Johnston ask the following question and make the undeniable argument that:

Do we not stand in urgent need of such teaching as Luther here gives us – teaching which humbles man, strengthens faith, and glorifies God – and is not the contemporary Church weak for the lack of it?  The issue is clear.  We are compelled to ask ourselves: If the Almighty God of the Bible is to be our God, if the New Testament gospel is to be our message, if Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day and for ever – is any other position than Luther’s possible?  Are we not in all honesty bound to stand with him in ascribing all might, and majesty, and dominion, and power, and all the glory of our salvation to God alone?  surely no more important or far-reaching question confronts the Church to-day.[4]

To which can only be added that regardless of it origin what has come down to us as Pelagianism – hard, soft, semi or any form – can not be tolerated.  The fallen person…

…who has not yet practically and experimentally learned the bondage of his will in sin has not yet comprehended any part of the gospel; for this is the hinge on which all turns, the ground on which the gospel rests…[5]

Pastors, above all else, must practically and experimentally learn the bondage of their own wills and that of their congregations in order to be able to preach, teach and believe the gospel proclamation.  The world is in urgent need of that which denies the enlightened anthropocentric narcissism of personal, congregational and community destruction and returns to the Cross of Christ.  To paraphrase St. Paul, the time has,

…come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.[6]

But pastors must,

keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.[7]

Which is to,

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.[8]


[1] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 34.

[2] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 39.
[3]  Robert K. Hudnut. “Pelagianism—Wrong as Ever” in America Magazine, the National Catholic Weekly.  accessed April 16, 2014.
[4]  Luther. The Bondage of the Will
[5] Luther. The Bondage of the Will.
[6]  2 Timothy 4: 3-4
[7]  2 Timothy 4: 5
[8]  2 Timothy 4: 2



Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 5)

Another rustic defends the Church

Despite being continuously rejected by the Church, Semi-Pelagianism (as it was now known) continued to be a source of controversy.  The debate erupted again in a contest between Luther and Erasmus.  Both men hoped to reform the Church of their time.  However, Erasmus, the learned and elegant translator of the Greek New Testament, sought a peaceful, undoctrinal humanistic reform.  Luther, who described himself as “barbarus in barbarie semper versatus,” was the leader of the highly doctrinal revolutionary Augustinian evangelicalism reform.[1]


Again, the two antagonist were cordial at the beginning.  Erasmus approved of much of what Luther had to say.  However, Erasmus was put off by Luther’s rough way of dealing with other in the need to reform the Church.  Pushed by supporters and a dig at his abilities by Luther, Erasmus penned On the Freedom of the Will which pitted him against Luther.  Luther responded with what has become known as the “Manifesto of the Reformation,” the translated title being The Bondage of the Will.[2]

Luther considered Erasmus’ Semi-Pelagianism worse than outright paganism, because it lead weaker Christians to the uncertainty of their own choices.  These wretches would always be trying harder or worrying over their salvation rather than simply accepting God grace through Jesus Christ.  Luther also attacked “Erasmus’s tone of ‘bored detachment’ towards the subject at hand was ‘fundamentally irreligious and in a theologian irresponsible.”[3]   And Luther made it clear that no form of Pelagianism could be true because fallen man can do nothing but sin and any independent meritorious act could not be carried out by fallen man without that act being the will of God.  Even the hint of such power in fallen man would be a denial of Christ.[4]

Stung by the ruthlessness of Luther’s word, Erasmus retreated into the more receptive arms of the Roman church.  Although influential at the time, Erasmus has been lost in the long line of humanist ‘reformers’ of the church in Rome.  Luther on the other hand set a course for the true Church of Jesus Christ.


[1] Martin Luther. The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell 1988).  “I am an uncivilized fellow who has lived his life in the backwoods.”
[2] Lee Gatiss.  “The Manifesto of the Reformation — Luther vs. Erasmus on Free Will.”  The Theologian.  accessed April 16, 2014.
[3]  Gatiss. “The Manifesto of the Reformation — Luther vs. Erasmus on Free Will.”
[4]  Luther. The Bondage of the Will.


Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 4)

Soft Pelagianism

As is true of most institutions trends tend to come and go.  In the case of Pelagianism it made a gradual return in a softer form of Pelagianism.  This softer form of Pelagianism seems to have been developed after 428 A.D. in Southern Gaul by monks in an attempt to find a compromise between the doctrines of the Pelagianist and Augustine.  However, rather than denying original sin, this teaching made man and God cooperators in salvation.  In its raw form this concept allowed that man without grace could make the first move toward God and thus aid in his own salvation.[1]

Measuring cracks at Mission San Juan, San Antonio, Texas

Once again, Augustine lead the effort to quash this new threat to the sovereignty of God.  Augustine referred to this softer form as “the relics of the Pelagianist.”  Beginning on friendly terms with Augustine, the monks of Southern Gaul and there supporters eventually became bitterly hostile to the “Doctor of Grace.”  The dispute continued for over 100 years, then in well after the death of Augustine, the “relics of the Pelagianist” were condemned as heresy in 529 A.D.[2]

The term Semi-Pelagianism in reference to the “relics of the Pelaginaist” was not developed until the 1500’s when it began being used as the moniker for the teachings of this softer form of Pelagianism by scholars and theologians.  The term Semi-Pelagianism is used explicitly in the Epitome of the Lutheran Formula of Concord in the confessional documents rejection of such teachings.   However, before the Epitome of the Formula there was a brilliant contest of these ideas between Martin Luther and Desiderias Erasmus.



[1] Joseph Pohle.  “Semipelagianism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia  ed. Charles G. Herbermann, Ph.D., LL.D., Edward A. Pace, Ph.D., D.D., Conde B. Fallen, Ph.D., LL.D., Thomas J. Shahan, D.D. and John J. Wynne, S.J. (The Encyclopedia Press, Inc.1913).  accessed April 16, 2014.

[2] Pohle.  “Semipelagianism”


Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 3)

The Pelagian Controversy

The stage was now set for two of the most influential men in the Christian Church to come to loggerheads over the issue of theological anthropology.  To be clear, Pelagius was in Rome and the heart of the degraded Church.  Augustine was in a far corner of the empire and in the midst of true believers.[1]   Much has been written concerning the views of each of the protagonist.

Weeping Cross at Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas

It is not at all clear that Pelagius held firmly to the doctrine of free will with regard to salvation.  But there is no doubt that he preached that a person had to make a choice of radical conversion in order to begin the new Christian life.[2]   As his message and followers spread it appealed to all who were looking for a different way of life than the degraded pagan existence most endured.[3]

However, once Pelagian teachings were brought to North Africa they were received by a intelligent and ultimately hostile Bishop of Hippo.  The North African church was well established and Augustine’s doctrines had eventually dominated in a long resistance of Donatists.  It was from here that an entirely different interpretation of man, of sin and of grace would wage a long distance struggle with Pelagianism.[4]

Pelagianism, with its Stoic motif that the freedom to do good was an essential anthropomorphic characteristic, collided with Augustine’s determination that the good was a gift from God and not intrinsically constitutional of fallen humanity.[5]   While both men preached God’s gift of divine grace, they were divided on the capacity of fallen man to contribute toward his own salvation.  Haight makes the distinction clear:
For Augustine, while free choice remained, the desire and affections of man were locked in a web of sin. The custom and habit of personal sin imprisoned free choice within the narrow confines of sensible self-seeking. For the Pelagians, religion and Christianity was mainly an affair of adults, and it meant conversion to and baptism into a radically new life. The Christian should steadily advance in perfection through his asceticism.[6]

The contrast is based upon the different views of Christian life before God.  For the Pelagians, man was free to chose to be Christian.  Whereas, for Augustine, God made men Christian through His grace, from His own will and for His own purposes.  This contrast continues to be at the heart of the distinction between the Church and the various in-name-only Christian sects.

In time, Augustine’s views held sway in the Church and as a result Pelagius was branded a heretic and his teachings were officially condemned by several councils of the Church.  However, since Pelagius had been so influential and he had followers throughout the Church, their teachings would continue to be a source of controversy.  Pelagius himself left Rome under duress and eventually died in Palestine.  Pelagius’ teachings , modified by the denial of original sin, remained real force for years after his death.  Of course, Augustine became a doctor of the Church and a saint whose influence formed and continues to guide the Church today.


[1] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 29.
[2] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 29.

[3] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 30.
[4] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 30.
[5] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 33.
[6] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 30.



Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 2)

Free Will in the Early Church

There is ample evidence that many in the early church held that humans possessed the capacity to chose good and/or evil.  Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus all wrote comments that indicating that human free agency existed and therefore could chose to be good or bad.[1]   It also appears that the precise timing of the inclusion of the Gospel of James in to the canonical Bible seems to be a point of controversy.[2]   Specifically, the question of James is due to the abundant use of verses from James by Pelagius and there limited use by Jerome and Augustine.[3]   This would have implications later when Martin Luther responds to Desiderius Erasmus.  However, Pelagius or his name sake followers seem to have the backing of some in the early church and did not make up the doctrine of free will from whole cloth.  Theological and philosophical speculation was what dominated the late Roman Empire and so the die was cast for the principal protagonist of the doctrine of free will to clash.


Two rustics visit Rome

Rome and its empire had been in an advanced state of decline since the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus in 180 A.D.  Although it would be some time before Alaric and the Visigoths would sack the city, Rome was decaying from self inflicted political and social disregard.  Stoicism seemed to dominate the philosophical climate of the times.[4]   As a result, at least within the elite, there was a resignation to accepting as inevitability of events and actions.  Stoicism had also found its expression in the Christians of the times.[5]

Into this environment came Pelagius in 380 A.D. and then Augustine in 383 A.D.  Both came from areas on the edge of the Empire, Pelagius from Britain (or perhaps Brittany) and Augustine from Thagaste, North Africa.  While they both had come to Rome looking for civil careers and they both were appalled at the pagan morality of Roman life, their life journey before visiting Rome and after were decidedly different.[6]    Most importantly for our purposes is that for their time both men were Christians.  Also significant is that they came Rome during the evolution of the Church from a persecuted hole-in-the-wall affair to becoming the State religion.

Uncertainty exists about Pelagius’ early life due to the lack of records and the destruction of his works after he was branded a heretic.  However, it is clear that he was from the northwest of Europe, perhaps Britain, as he was referred to as Pelagius Brito or Britannicus.   Pelagius was well educated, may have been a monk and possibly studied law as well.[7]   Once in Rome, Pelagius became the leader of a reform movement.

Haight describes Pelagius’ as being:
Closely associated with the aristocratic class, he preached, against the pagan morality that had infiltrated into the Church with the conversions of convenience, a life of authentic Christianity, of Christian perfection, one that appealed to the first families who wanted to stand out above the crowd.[8]

These elite Roman Christians may have more to do with the formation of what is called Pelagianism, than Pelagius himself.

Augustine’s early life was decidedly different than Pelagius.  We are acutely aware of Augustine’s life because of his prolific writing, which most has been preserved, and specifically to his self-penned Confessiones.[9]   He was born in Thagaste into family which had been full Roman citizens for about 100 years before his birth.  His father was a pagan and his mother a Christian.  His mother, Monica, had great influence upon his life because she prayed for him constantly.  He was early educated was in Latin literature, pagan beliefs and customs.  In his teens he went to Carthage to continue his studies.  Although Monica had raised him as a Christian, during his Carthage years he began to follow the Gnostic cult of Manichaeism.   This lead to a debauched life style, which distressed Monica greatly.  A long affair with a woman resulted in the birth of a son, Adeodatus, who was greatly loved by both Augustine and Monica.

Augustine moved back to Thagaste to teach grammar then back to Carthage.  Back in  Carthage, Augustine became a well respected teacher of rhetoric.  However, he became appalled by the behavior of the students and began to drift away from Manichaeism.  Shortly after this, he won the highly visible and well placed position of professor of rhetoric to the imperial court of Milan.

While in Milan, Augustine was impressed with the local bishop, Ambrose.  Influenced by Monica and Ambrose, Augustine had a conversion experience and became a Christian.  This lead to his returning to his families property near Hippo in North Africa.  It was during a rare visit to Hippo that Augustine was convinced of the need for a bishop of the Church and thus was ordained as Bishop of Hippo.  In the position of bishop, Augustine preached and wrote a tremendous amount.  Letters, books, documents all directed at either clarifying the doctrines of or in defense of the Christian Church.


[1] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 31.
[2] Jonathan P. Yates, “The Canonical Significance of the Citation of James in Pelagius,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 78 (2002): 482-89.
[3] Yates, “The Canonical Significance of the Citation of James in Pelagius,” 487.

[4] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 30.
[5] Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” 31.
[6] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 27.

[7] Catholic Online.  Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company).  accessed April 16, 2014.

[8] Haight, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” 29.
[9] Augustine.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine. trans. Edward B. Pusey, D.D. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) accessed April 16, 2014.


Pelagianism – A falsis principiis proficisci (Part 1)

The question of human agency in salvation has been a continuous question within the Church from an early period.  Many of the early church fathers wrote that humans had a choice over good and evil and therefore could work with God toward their own salvation.  Pelagianism, the principle that original sin was had not completely ruined humanity and thus humans had some capacity for merit with out Divine support, became well defined in the late fourth century.  Although it bears the name of Pelagius, evidence has been gathered that indicates that Pelagius himself may not have held firm to the principle.  Nevertheless Pelagius became the bitter theological nemesis of St. Augustine.  As a result Pelagius was branded a heretic and the theological principle that bears his name was denounced.


However, Pelagianism and its softer spawn Semi-Pelagianism have continued to be part and parcel of the Christian Church.  The Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian teachings were denounced in two church councils in the fifth century, again by prominent theologians in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Perhaps the best renunciation of these teachings was by Martin Luther in his opus De Servo Arbitrio in late 1525.  Despite being continuously renounced Pelagianism in harder and softer forms continues to be present in the Church and in non-Trinitarian sects.

Therefore, historically Lutherans have agreed with Augustine’s theological anthropology and are sensitive to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.  This is evident from the writings in the Concordia; The Lutheran Confessions.*   Both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism were labeled heresies within the Western Church.**    Publications and research have brought into question the role of Pelagius in the early church.***   The central question for this paper is the lack of a concise synopsis of the information that is needed to make decisions concerning the Pelagius’ accountability for the controversy that bears his name.   A concise synopsis is needed to clarify the teachings of the Lutheran Church that will enable Lutheran pastors and laymen to develop an appreciation for how the challenges for the early church remain challenges for today and the future.


*  Triglot Concordia 1584
**  James Breckenridge, “Pelagius: The Making of a Heretic,” Evangelical Quarterly 42.1 (1970): 30-34.
***   Rodger D. Haight SJ, “Notes on the Pelagian Controversy,” Philippian Studies, Vol. 22 (1974): 26-48.