Pelagius and Pelagianism: Semper Refutare

"Orthodox theology," insists Biblical and Systematic Theology professor Harold O.J. Brown, "teaches that the Fall of man so corrupted human nature that human beings became unable to save themselves, or even to take steps toward receiving salvation, apart from the free, prevenient grace of God."1 (emphasis added) What is referred to as "orthodox theology" is the majority consensus of early Church fathers on doctrinal matters that eventually lead to the theological formulations we find in Church councils. Trinitarianism, for example, is an orthodox theological position that renders all anti-Trinitarian positions as heresy. What of the depravity of humanity?

I have noticed a relatively recent rise in the theological positions of Pelagius that denies our inherent depravity. For this reason, Pelagius and Pelagianism deserves to be semper refutare, a state of always being refuted. Regarding the early Church fathers, one Pelagian Open Theist comments, "The church fathers before him [Pelagius] and those in the east were in agreement with him." This is an egregious error. He adds: "They all believed our free will is not lost." But belief in free will is not Pelagian, per se, nor does belief in free will necessarily discount the reality of original sin or inherent depravity. In Pelagius we find a "natural goodness of man and the freedom of the human will."2 In other words, the will is ultimately free due to an inner, abiding goodness.

Pelagius, a British monk of the late fourth century, is "motivated by practical piety, i.e. by the zeal to lead a perfect Christian life and to encourage others to do so."3 Pelagius witnesses not only the "Christianization" of the Roman Empire but also the "secularization" of the Christian Church.4 Dr. Brown informs us that Pelagius is concerned to show that it is possible to lead
a life of moral responsibility, pleasing to God; at the same time, he denounced the pessimistic, otherworldly dualism of the Manichæan movement [dualistic and Gnostic] to which Augustine was once attached and which he never seems entirely to have outgrown [a significant historical fact that is inescapably related to Calvinism, as a philosophical-theological position, since a theory of divine determinism is at the core of each system].5 (emphasis added)
Pelagius is (rightly) repulsed by Augustine's former (and present struggle with) Manichæanism, but he holds his own heretical views, chief among them the notion that all sin is strictly voluntary (i.e., any person can avoid sin): "Pelagius replaced the concept of original sin with that of the bad example Adam gave to his progeny."6 In other words, a person willingly and freely chooses to sin by copying the bad behavior of another, and that person is capable of refusing to sin and living a holy life at one's own choosing or willing. By "free will," sadly, many think of this erroneous position. Jacob Arminius writes: "Meanwhile I profess that I detest from my soul the Pelagian dogmas . . . and that, if anyone can prove, from what I say, that anything follows which has any affinity with those doctrines, I will change and correct my opinion."7

Odd, then, how some Calvinists can charge Arminius as "reviving the old Pelagian heresy."8 A.A. Hodge is content to render Arminianism a realized Semi-Pelagianism. (link) Calvinist James White is no better enlightened: "The religions of man, Roman Catholicism, and Arminianism, all share one thing in common: the deep desire to maintain the ability of man to control the work of God in salvation and always have the 'final say.'"9 The errors presented here are astounding in light of what Arminius and the Remonstrants confess on the issues of original sin, total depravity, and total inability. As an aside, surprisingly, White fails to consider that, even in Arminianism, God is still the one who decides who will and who will not be saved, for God has elected to save those who believe in Christ (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God does not save and regenerate unbelievers, as Calvinists erroneously maintain (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13). In reality, then, God has "the final say" on salvation.

Whatever one thinks regarding Arminius' other views -- such as election and predestination, the extent of the atonement, or the means of sufficient and necessary but by no means whatsoever an irresistible grace -- what cannot be denied is his staunch position in defense of both original sin and total depravity (with an accompanying corollary total inability): Not only has inherent original sin wounded the free will in fallen mortals, but such is also "imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace."10 This one confession dislocates any immediate or implied connection with Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism.

Calvinist J.I. Packer is quoted as erroneously insisting that Arminianism teaches that faith can in no sense be caused by God,11 which is untrue,12 as well that the system defends the concept that fallen mortals are "never so completely corrupted by sin that [they] cannot savingly believe the gospel when it is put before [them]."13 Yet Arminius argues that the fallen mind of an individual is "dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God."14 Therefore, when Calvinists like Packer produce such erroneous and ludicrous statements regarding Arminius and his theology, we understand clearly that the sole intent of such comments is the undermining of the theology -- the anachronistic Arminian theology of the early Church fathers15 -- by any means necessary.

Pelagius insists that any command that God gives to mortals, whether moral, ethical, or practical, can be obeyed by use of free will. R.C. Sproul comments: "Pelagius raised this question: Is the assistance of grace necessary for a human being to obey God's commands? Or can those commands be obeyed without such assistance? For Pelagius the command to obey implies the ability to obey."16 Pelagius teaches that God has endowed us, inherently by nature, with a genuine freedom of the will to choose the good and eschew all evil. People are responsible for their own actions and choices, since God has granted humanity the inherent ability to choose the good. Again, Sproul comments, "For Pelagius, nature does not require grace in order to fulfill its obligations. Free will, properly exercised, produces virtue, which is the supreme good and is justly followed by reward."17 Do the early Church fathers agree?

Justin Martyr, c. 160, insists that, in Adam, humanity naturally, or by nature, becomes "subject to corruption." This corruption is not merely an inevitable decay toward death but an inherent corruption by nature.18 He stands not alone in this assessment:

  • So Satan has entirely changed man's nature into his own state of wicked enmity against his Maker. -- Tertullian (c. 197)
  • Adam was the first man who fell. . . . And he conferred on us also what he did, whether of good or of evil. For he was the chief of all who were born from him. [cf. Rom. 5:12] -- Commodianus (c. 240)
  • For remember how it has been already shown that from the time when man went astray and disobeyed the law, from then on sin [dwelt] in him. It received its birth from his disobedience. As a result, a commotion was stirred up. We were filled with agitations and foreign imaginations. -- Methodius (c. 290) 19

This brief offering demonstrates, from two Western and two Eastern traditions, that each man and woman born from Adam would inherit a depravity that renders one bent toward sin. Thus we are not born as a clean and blank slate, as Pelagius insists, but we choose to sin because we want to sin due to our fallen nature ever-bending us toward disobedience. After all, as Jesus teaches, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (Mark 2:17) If we can be pure, in and of ourselves, as Pelagius erroneously believes and teaches others, then we are not in need of a Physician, or a Savior. But we, each one of us, is desperately sick: "Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint." (Isa. 1:5 ESV; cf. Jer. 17:9)

From Jesus to St Paul we understand that no fallen mortal, conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5), is inherently good: "No one is good except God alone" (Mark 10:18); "As it is written, 'None is righteous, no, not one. . . . All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.'" (Rom. 3:10, 12) If the good nature of the human being is not good, or has become not good due to disobedience; and if thereby the human being has turned aside from the ultimate Good, that is, God; and if the human being has become worthless; then the natural and sole conclusion remains that the free will of the creature is tainted, not good, not capable of choosing the good, but is, as Arminius clearly states, destroyed and lost.

However, all is not lost, not when one considers the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit in the operation of our will. Arminians have argued incessantly within the last decade, at least, that, doctrinally, we hold not to free will but to freed will. (link) As Arminius himself notes, within the framework of depravity, the will is not free "unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit."20 (emphasis added) This is not the manner in which Pelagius parses the matter: for Pelagius, the will is already free, in need of no gracious enabling by the Holy Spirit. Dr. Brown states that the early fathers agree (with Arminius) that the fall "deprived [humanity] of this grace [a truly free will, as experienced in the Garden, prior to the fall], permitting evil desire to rule" within each offspring of Adam.21 Even prior to his opposition to Pelagius, St Augustine holds to the same position of free will, but properly contextualizing that will to the enabling and prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit. Any freer view on the issue is counted as theological error.

Augustinianism, confesses A.A. Hodge and others, is "completed in Calvinism." (link) Pelagianism is completed in Semi-Pelagianism (à la St John Cassian, 360-435 CE). Arminianism, however, is not only the anachronistic theology of the early Church fathers but is also the via media -- the middle way -- the perfect and middle position between the two extremes of graceless Pelagianism and deterministic Calvinism. Dr. Brown writes: "The danger to our doctrine of God in this controversy lies in the fact that the alternative to Pelagianism seems to be a kind of rigid determinism that would make the unique God the author of all things by His predestining will, i.e. the author of sin and evil as well as of good."22 Fortunately, that is an incomplete concept, given that the viable alternative to both extreme errors is Classical or Reformed Arminian theology.


1 Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 197.

2 Ibid., 200.

3 Ibid., 201.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Jacob Arminius, "Examination of the Theses of Dr. Franics Gomarus Respecting Predestination," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 3:657.

8 For example, a Calvinist minister in England warns others against the Methodists, John and Charles Wesley, traveling to America to spread theological errors, reviving "the errors of James Arminius, and would, it was feared, inundate America with their damnable Arminian, Pelagian, and popish heresies." See Thomas Ware, Sketches of the Life and Travels of Rev. Thomas Ware (New York: G. Lane and P.P. Sanford, 1842), 19.

9 James R. White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press, 2000), 85.

10 Arminius, Works, 2:192.

11 David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, revised and expanded (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 3. The authors repeat that error, which has yet to be corrected in subsequent editions, to the effect: "Although human nature was seriously affected by the Fall [noted as The Five Points of Arminianism], man has not been left in a state of total helplessness." (5) Yet the Remonstrants, at Dordt, explicitly confess at Point 3: "That man could not [i.e., does not possess the capability to] obtain saving faith of himself, or by the strength of his own free will, but stood in need of God's grace, through Christ, to be made the subject of its power." These Calvinists are committing serious inaccuracies and misrepresenting Arminians and Arminian theology and, hence, should not be trusted until they amend their obvious errors. What this demonstrates is that such Calvinists are not reading Arminius, the Remonstrants, or Reformed Arminian theologians but, rather, conceiving their own notions of the same and proffering such as truth.

12 Arminius argues: "Evangelical faith is an assent of the mind, produced by the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel, in sinners, who through the law know and acknowledge their sins, and are penitent on account of them." (emphasis added) Works, 2:400.

13 Steele, Thomas, Quinn, 3.

14 Works, 2:192.

15 "What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy." Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

16 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 34.

17 Ibid., 35.

18 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 271.

19 Ibid., 272-74.

20 Works, 2:194.

21 Brown, 202.

21 Ibid.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.