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Church History Debates: Is Pelagianism a Heresy?

It’s clear from Scripture and our own experience that humans, though created in God’s image, are sinners. We have a decided inner propensity toward sin. But is it at least possible that a regular human who is capable of sinning could somehow live a sinless life? Theoretically? That’s where “Pelagianism” comes in.

Background of the Pelagian Controversy

With the Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century came the increase of worldliness in the church. Against this backdrop, Pelagius, a British monk, wrote to spur the aim of Christians toward moral perfection.

While he did not deny that salvation is through faith and not through works, Pelagius insisted that Christians must seek to obey the New Testament commandments, commandments which would not have been commanded if they had been impossible to obey. Rather than Adam’s sin giving us original sin, it more gave us an example that we continue to follow.[1] Each individual is created in a free state as Adam was.[2]

Thus, Pelagius seems to imply that, at least theoretically, one could live without sin. In such a situation, man does not need a savior as much as an example.[3]


“Pelagius seems to imply that, at least theoretically, one could live without sin.”


Contrary to Pelagius, Augustine held that Adam’s sin is inherited by all mankind and binds them in a state of hopeless damnation, apart from the grace of God. While Adam may have been created “to have been able not to sin,” he lost this when he chose to rebel. His freedom was then shattered.

Every human since Adam is part of the “mass of damnation,” including children. No human can attain a state of morality that would warrant salvation.[4]

Augustine came into contact with Pelagian refugees from Rome around 411.[5] He met Pelagius himself briefly before Pelagius moved to Jerusalem.[6] Augustine took the active role in ridding the Empire of their influence. In response to Pelagius, Augustine further developed his views on original sin, the necessity of grace, predestination, and the perseverance of the elect.[7]


“In response to Pelagius, Augustine further developed his views on original sin, the necessity of grace, predestination, and the perseverance of the elect.”


The African Councils of Carthage and Milevis in 416 condemned Pelagius.[8] Likewise, Pelagius’s views were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. However, neither the West nor East fully embraced Augustine’s views on the subject.[9] Some have argued persuasively that Augustine’s “original sin” doctrine needs tweaking and that “ancestral sin” is a more accurate term.

Opponent of Pelagianism

Augustine was a convert from Manicheism who rose to become the bishop of Hippo. He was to wield great influence over the Western church in the medieval era. His Confessions and The City of God remain Christian classics.[10]

Proponents of Pelagianism

Pelagius was a monk-theologian from Britain who came to Rome with his views on human freedom. He fled the Alaric invaders around 410 and went to Carthage, where Augustine challenged him. He moved to Jerusalem from which he was banished after 418.[11] His views were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431.[12]

Celestius aided Pelagius in formulating his anthropological views.[13] He was also an outspoken critic of infant baptism, which put him in further conflict with Augustine.[14]

Biblical Basis to Reject Pelagianism

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to this worldly age, according to the ruler of the atmospheric domain, the spirit now working in the disobedient.” (Ephesians 2:1-2)

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)

Excerpt

From Pelagius:

“Everything good and everything evil, in respect of which we are either worthy of praise or of blame, is done by us, not born with us. We are not born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil; we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice, and before the activity of our own personal will there is nothing in man but what God has stored in him.”[15]


[1] Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 200-201.

[2] Earle Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1981), 137.

[3] Brown, 202.

[4] Brown, 202-203.

[5] David F. Wright, “Augustine of Hippo,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 207.

[6] Brown, 200.

[7] Wright, “Augustine of Hippo,” 207.

[8] David F. Wright, “The Church in North Africa,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 205.

[9] Cairns, 138.

[10] Wright, “Augustine of Hippo,” 206-207.

[11] Brown, 200.

[12] Cairns, 138.

[13] Cairns, 137.

[14] Wright, “Augustine of Hippo,” 207.

[15] Pelagius, “Pelagius Denies Original Sin,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 58.

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