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The Great Heresies: Pelagianism (2)

Category Articles
Date October 20, 2017

This is the second half of a two part article. The first part can be found here.


Yet the death of Pelagius was not the end of his speculation; not only were there still those who followed him, but there were those who tried to develop a ‘middle way’ between the strict Biblical teaching of original sin and that of human free will. In South Gaul in particular there were monks who taught that human nature had been damaged by the Fall, making it difficult for people to choose to do good, but that nevertheless it was possible for man, with divine help, to choose the good. Among these were the theologians John Cassian and Vincentius of Lerins. If the Biblical image is of man ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13), the Semi-Pelagian view is that man is injured, maybe even half-dead, but still able to respond to God on his own. This too was condemned, at the Council of Orange in 529. The attempted compromise has been retrospectively named Semi-Pelagianism, and it failed because it did not address the basic questions raised by the controversy. While Augustine, following the Bible, placed the whole work of Salvation, from beginning to end, in the hands of God, the Semi-Pelagians tried to parcel out responsibility. Perhaps most ruinously, they founded God’s election on foreseen faith in the believer, thus making it man, not God, who begins the work of salvation.

The Medieval Church

In spite of the vigorous condemnation of Pelagius, and the decision of the Council of Orange, a form of semi-Pelagianism slowly became the standard teaching of the Western Catholic Church during the middle ages, more by accident than design. The historian J.W.C. Wand rather generously described it as ‘Semi-Augustinianism,’1 Formally the verdict of Orange was accepted, yet the idea that man has in some sense free will to choose God was taken almost as a self-evident part of theology. Of course this was not without challenges, as Augustine remained highly respected as a Doctor of the Church, even if one who was little read at times. While Augustine was firm in his teaching that salvation is all of God, medieval theology with its elaborate sacramental system made it a matter of cooperation between man and God, though with God taking the initiative. The unbiblical idea of a ‘prevenient grace’ (i.e. a grace that goes before) which God gives to allow all people to believe arose. It should be emphasized however that there always remained in the Western Catholic Church a stream of thought that was more Biblical, and it was this stream which was to come to the surface at the Reformation.

 The Reformation

B.B. Warfield famously described the Reformation as ‘The victory of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.’ To a great degree the Reformation was a rediscovery of the teachings of the great African Father, on this point of the state of the human will as much as others. Indeed the great written debate of the Reformation between Erasmus and Luther was on the question of Free Will. Erasmus’ little Diatribe on the Freedom of the Will, written in 1524 to maintain what had become the standard medieval teaching on the subject, was answered the following year with Luther’s magisterial Bondage of the Will,2 in which the German Reformer upheld Augustine against what he regarded as a latter-day form of Pelagianism. While he was a vigorous critic of the practical abuses of the Catholic Church, Erasmus maintained the medieval theology as taught by such scholastics as Alexander of Hales (c.1185-1245). Luther regarded the book as among the most important that he had ever written. ‘I give you hearty praise,’ he writes to Erasmus at the end of his book, ‘that you alone in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue.3 Luther set out the Reformation view, founded firmly on Scripture, and in this he was followed not only by the Lutherans, but by the Reformed. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the teachings that had been expounded by Erasmus, and the divide remains to this day.


Forms of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism continued to spring up. Many of the Anabaptist groups held to a radical freedom of the will, and thus saw baptism as first and foremost a declaration by the one being baptized that he or she had ‘decided to follow Jesus.’ From these groups came the old English General Baptists, most of whose congregations became Unitarian in the 18th century.

But the most significant Semi-Pelagian movement of the post-Reformation era was that called by the name of Arminius. Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch Reformed pastor who began to teach a form of universal grace that made all men saveable, though it saved none. He denied a decree of reprobation, and modified the teaching on original sin which he had received from his teachers. In spite of criticism of his heterodox views, he was appointed Professor of Theology at Leiden in 1603, where he taught until his death in 1609 at the age of 49. He found followers, and they, led by Simon Episcopius, developed his system further after his death. Their position was effectively that of the Semi-Pelagians, denying that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to his descendants, but maintaining that a hereditary weakness is passed on from Adam, making us all liable to commit sin.

In 1618 the Synod of Dort was summoned in Holland, attended by some of the leading Reformed theologians of Europe. It unequivocally condemned the Arminians, and affirmed the Biblical teaching on original sin and the fact that salvation is all of God. Nevertheless the Arminian party remained in existence as the Remonstrant Brotherhood, which today claims some 6,000 adherents in the Netherlands.

Arminian teaching also spread in the Church of England under the leadership of Archbishop Laud, and was favored by the Stuart kings, in spite of the Calvinistic character of the Thirty-Nine Articles. After the Restoration and subsequent Ejection of the majority of Puritans from the Church of England, this rationalistic Arminianism became the predominant theology in Anglicanism, although there remained a party committed to the theology of the Articles.

John Wesley drew upon this Arminian Anglican heritage, but tried to join it to a more Biblical view of man’s condition as lost in sin, and condemned in the fall. At the same time he taught that God has graciously given everyone the ability to respond to the Gospel. The resulting teaching was in many ways unstable, and where there were attempts to systematize, it inevitably tended towards a denial of original sin and an exaltation of free will.

 Pelagianism Today

In the introduction to their edition of The Bondage of the Will, Packer and Johnston write, ‘Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognized by the pioneer Reformers… Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran?’4 Much of modern Protestantism is in fact Semi-Pelagian at best, and it is not just liberal Protestantism; modern Evangelicalism is deeply infected. One need only think of the calls for people to ‘decide for Christ,’ and the image of Christ pleading with the sinner. Some modern evangelical preachers have even been heard calling for their hearers to ‘give Jesus a chance.’

Much of the blame for this can be traced back to one man, regarded by many as a hero, but in reality a dangerous false teacher; his name is Charles Grandison Finney.5 Born in 1792, in rural New England, he was apprenticed to a lawyer at the time of his conversion experience in 1821. Convinced that he was called to be an ‘advocate for God’, he began to study for the ministry, and was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry in 1824 as an Evangelist. Despite the fact that he had to give his assent to the Westminster Confession in order to be ordained, he later said that he had never read it, and when he did read it, he found that he disagreed violently with what he read. Notwithstanding this, he continued to preach as a Presbyterian evangelist, and to teach what actually amounted to Pelagianism.

Finney carried over from his legal training the principle that a command necessarily implies the ability to carry it out, therefore if God commands people to do a thing, they must have it in their power to do it. In this he is the father of modern-day ‘Decision’ evangelism. Because he believed that every man must have it in his unaided power to repent and turn to Christ, Finney reasoned that the best forms of Evangelism were those that wrought upon the will, and so he developed his entire evangelistic strategy based on this idea. The result was that rather than relying on the Bible and the Holy Spirit, Finney relied on high-pressure techniques, meetings going on long into the night, emotional harangues, and the use of the startling and the new. They brought thousands to make a profession, but most, if not all, of these went back to the world.

Finney particularly objected to the idea that all men are fallen in Adam and need to be saved by a power outside of themselves, hence in his Systematic Theology, he urged that men ‘are under the necessity of first changing their hearts, or their choice of an end, before they can put forth any volitions to secure any other than a selfish end.’6

Finney himself ended up disappointed by the ultimate failure of so much of his efforts. But he has spawned many imitators, and an approach to evangelism that is ultimately Pelagian, not Biblical. Thus we may say that through Finney, modern Evangelicalism has become thoroughly leavened with Pelagian error.


In the Pelagian controversy the great question is this: who saves, God or me? Or is it a cooperative effort of some kind? The Bible is very clear that ‘Salvation is of the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9). The condition of man is not that we are all very ill, but that we are dead, and can only be saved by the voice of him who raises the dead. A defective view here leads to manipulative evangelistic methods which seek to draw people in by the appeal to self-interest, to emotion, or something else. But Christ calls his Church to proclaim the Gospel. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, referring to his own ministry, ‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.’

So in spite of the dominant theology in modern Evangelicalism, we maintain the Bible’s teaching, and we do not seek to appeal to men as such, but to proclaim Christ, and depend on God to convert people, knowing we cannot do that ourselves.


  1. A History of the Early Church (London, Methuen, Third ed. 1949), p233.
  2. The standard English translation is by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (London, James Clarke, 1957)
  3. Ibid, p319.
  4. Ibid, pp59-60.
  5. See in particular Philip Johnson, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,
  6. Quoted in Johnson

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