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.

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