Pelagianism: The Calvinist’s Boogie Man

If I had a dollar for every time I was accused of being a “Pelagian” or “Semi-Pelagian,” I’d have at least enough money to put my eldest through college.

Typically, the accusation comes from those who are less informed about the historical use of these labels and their actual meanings as it relates to our current soteriological disagreements.[1] So, let’s get educated.

Pelagius was a 5th century British monk who was accused of teaching that people had the natural ability to fulfill the commands of God by an exercise of the human will apart from divine assistance (grace). Pelagianism came to be known as the belief that mankind is born basically good, without a sinful nature, and is thus capable of doing good without God’s help. [2]

Because Pelagius was deemed a heretic, little of his work survived to the present day except in the quotes of his opponents (not the most reliable of sources). Many modern scholars suspect that Pelagius’ actual teachings were greatly misrepresented so as to demonize and marginalize him (this is not difficult to imagine).

Despite what is commonly known of Pelagius, evidence indicates that he and his followers taught that all good works come only by divine aid (grace), which was seen as “enabling,” not “effectual/irresistible” in nature. For instance, in a letter to the Pope defending himself, Pelagius is reported to have written:

“This grace we for our part do not, as you suppose, allow to consist merely in the law, but also in the help of God. God helps us by His teaching and revelation, whilst He opens the eyes of our heart; whilst He points out to us the future, that we may not be absorbed in the present; whilst He discovers to us the snares of the devil; whilst He enlightens us with the manifold and ineffable gift of heavenly grace… This free will is in all good works always assisted by divine help.” [3]

And in an accompanying confession of faith, he states, “Free-will we do so own, as to say that we always stand in need of God’s help,” And he affirmed, “We do also abhor the blasphemy of those who say that any impossible thing is commanded to man by God; or that the commandments of God cannot be performed by any one man.” So, while Pelagius maintained human responsibility to keep the commands of God he still seemed to maintain the need of divine aid in doing so.[4]

Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius, was the first on record to teach the concept of individual effectual election to salvation. Even Calvinistic historian Loraine Boettner concedes that this “was first clearly seen by Augustine” in the fifth century. In fact, Boettner notes, not only did the earliest Church Fathers not interpret the doctrine of election “Calvinistically,” but much of their teaching stands in strong opposition to such conclusions. A great emphasis on the absolute freedom of the human will and repudiations of individual predestination to salvation is found clearly throughout the earliest writings of the church. [5] John Calvin himself acknowledged this fact when he stated:

“Further, even though the Greeks [Early Church Fathers] above the rest—and Chrysostom especially among them—extol the ability of the human will, yet all the ancients, save Augustine, so differ, waver, or speak confusedly on this subject, that almost nothing certain can be derived from their writings.”[6]

So, by Calvinists own admission, Augustine introduced much of these unique (and often controversial) doctrinal beliefs in the 5th century.[7]

Pelagius stood up against Augustine’s new doctrinal positions and even went so far as to accuse him of being under the influence of his former Manichean (Gnostic) roots, which was known to teach pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine.[8] Augustine, in turn, accused Pelagius of denying any need for divine aid in the conversion process. It is likely that both of them went too far in their accusations, but history reveals that it was Augustine’s smears of Pelagius that won over in the court of public opinion.[9]

Pelagianism, therefore, has become known historically as “the teaching that man has the capacity to seek God in and of himself apart from any movement of God or the Holy Spirit, and therefore that salvation is effected by man’s efforts.”[10]

Traditionalists, like myself, wholeheartedly deny this belief and consider the label offensive and completely misrepresentative of our actual teachings (and I’m under the impression Pelagius himself would express similar sentiments if given a fair hearing today).

Here are a few reasons why this label would not rightly represent our views:

  • We believe man has the capacity to respond willingly to God’s means of seeking to save the lost, NOT that man would seek God if left alone.
  • We believe God is graciously actively working in and through creation, conscience, His bride, His Holy Spirit filled followers, and his Word to aid humanity in their conversion.
  • We believe salvation is wholly of God in that He owes no man forgiveness or eternal life, even if they freely repent and humbly submit to Him as Lord and Savior. Asking for forgiveness no more merits that forgiveness than the prodigal son’s return home merited the reception he received from his father. That was the choice of a gracious father alone.

What about Semi-Pelagianism?

First, it should be noted that the term “Semi-Pelagian” was first introduced in the late 16th century by Calvinistic theologians attempting to combat the rising popularity of Molinism, an alternative method of reconciling the problem of divine omniscience and human freedom.[11]

Calvinistic Apologist, Matt Slick, describes Semi-Pelagianism in this way:

“Semi-Pelagianism is a weaker form of Pelagianism (a heresy derived from Pelagius who lived in the 5th century A.D. and was a teacher in Rome). Semi-Pelagianism (advocated by Cassian at Marseilles, 5th Century) did not deny original sin and its effects upon the human soul and will, but it taught that God and man cooperate to achieve man’s salvation. This cooperation is not by human effort as in keeping the law but rather in the ability of a person to make a free will choice. The semi-Pelagian teaches that man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will and that man can cooperate with God’s grace even to the keeping of his faith through human effort. This would mean that God responds to the initial effort of a person and that God’s grace is not absolutely necessary to maintain faith.”[12]

In my lengthy discussion with Matt Slick over our soteriological differences, he more than once accused me of “Semi-Pelagianism.”

Do Traditionalists, like myself, believe that “God and man cooperate to achieve man’s salvation?”

Let me respond to that by asking this question: “Did the prodigal son and his father cooperate to achieve the son’s restoration, or was that a gracious choice of the father alone upon his son’s return?”  The false belief that forgiveness is somehow owed to those who freely humble themselves and ask for it leads to erroneous conclusions such as this.

Do Traditionalists teach that “man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will?” I challenge anyone to find just one Traditional Southern Baptist scholar who has even come close to making this kind of claim. I’m tempted to offer an award…(maybe a year supply of play-doh or something?)

Do Traditionalists teach that “God responds to the initial effort of a person?”  Of course not! Belief that mankind is able to willingly respond to the gracious means of God to seek and save the lost IS NOT equal to mankind making “the first move toward God.”

If it was proven that I could not call the President of the United States on the phone, would you also conclude, based on that information, that it would be impossible for me to answer the phone if the President tried to call me? Of course not, but that is exactly what those who accuse us of Semi-Pelagianism are doing.

In their shortsighted and ill-informed effort to discredit our perspective, they have resorted to what is known as a “boogie-man fallacy.” This is a certain type of argument, which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling discussion and erroneously labelling an opponent’s position with that of a known heresy so as to demonize and discredit it.

For example, someone in a debate might say, “See, his view sounds like something Hilter said once, so you shouldn’t listen to him any more.” Hitler is a known “boogie man” or “bad character,” so if I can associate my opponent’s views with Hilter, then I’ll discredit him all together.  Likewise, Pelagius has become the Calvinist’s go to “boogie man,” and many of them will stop at nothing to slap that label on us so as to marginalize and discredit anything we say.

This method bears a certain resemblance to the ad hominem fallacy, and comes from the same root motivation: Discredit and marginalize the person and their views rather than objectively evaluating and offering a sound, non-fallous rebuttal. The ad hominem fallacy consists of attempting to refute an argument by impeaching the character of its proponent, where as the boogie man fallacy seeks to associate an argument with that of someone whose character (or belief) has already been impeached (like poor ol’ Pelagius).  This would be like an Arminian calling Dr. John Piper a “Hyper-Calvinist” (those who denounce the need of evangelism) on the basis that he teaches some similar views to that of known hyper-Calvinists.

This is pure “guilt by association” and it is the lazy man’s approach to avoid an otherwise rational and informed discussion of the issues. Those who resort to such tactics either do not know any better or they are nefariously attempting to marginalize and demonize the views of those who disagree with them. Readers of this article can no longer appeal to the former as an excuse.

Added Note: Some Arminians have mistakenly joined in this accusation against Southern Baptist Traditionalists. To read my response to Roger Olson’s critique of the Traditional Statement: CLICK HERE.

And to read a more thorough historical and biblical rebuttal of those who disagree on this issue: CLICK HERE.

To listen to my discussion with an Arminian over this subject: CLICK HERE

 

 

[1] http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_10-1_Spring_2013.pdf [Note: I highly recommend reading this journal article by Dr. Adam Harwood explaining in great detail why Traditionalists are not Semi-Pelagian.]
[2] Matt Slick, CARM Ministries: https://carm.org/pelagianism
[3] Bonner, Gerald (2004). “Pelagius (fl. c.390–418), theologian”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/21784. Retrieved 28 October 2012.
[4] Pohle, Joseph. “Pelagius and Pelagianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 18 Jan. 2014
[5] Loraine Boettner, Calvinism in History: Before the Reformation, web site, available from http://www.seeking4truth.com/before_reformation.htm; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: web page: https://books.google.com/books?id=0aB1BwAAQBAJ&pg=PA259&lpg=PA259&dq=or+speak+confusedly+on+this+subject,+that+almost+nothing+certain+can+be+derived+from+their+writings&source=bl&ots=qBEMo_kr1v&sig=FjMfiVDcr7iliN31rPJ5pVSraI4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiy5YqU3P_KAhVGmIMKHZGXBgYQ6AEIHzAB#v=onepage&q=or%20speak%20confusedly%20on%20this%20subject%2C%20that%20almost%20nothing%20certain%20can%20be%20derived%20from%20their%20writings&f=false
[7]  Robert Arakaki, Calvin Dissing the Early Church Fathers: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/calvin-dissing-the-fathers/
[8] Augustine is known for his nine-year fascination with Manichaeism: http://blogs.record-eagle.com/?p=4705
[9] The determination of the Council of Orange (529) could be considered “semi-Augustinian.” It defined that faith, though a free act, resulted even in its beginnings from the grace of God, enlightening the human mind and enabling belief. However, it also explicitly denied double predestination (of the equal-ultimacy variety), stating, “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” The document links grace with baptism, which was not a controversial subject at the time. It received papal sanction.[Oakley, Francis (Jan 1, 1988), The Medieval Experience: Foundations of Western Cultural Singularity, University of Toronto Press, p. 64.; Thorsen, Don (2007), An Exploration of Christian Theology, Baker Books, 20.3.4. Cf. Second Council of Orange ch.5-7; H.J. Denzinger Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum, 375-377; C. H. (1981) [1967]. “Faith”. The New Catholic Encyclopedia 5. Washington D.C. p. 797; Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005]
[10] Adams, Nicholas (2007). “Pelagianism: Can people be saved by their own efforts?”. In Quash, Ben; Ward, Michael. Heresies and How to Avoid Them. London: SPCK Publishing. p. 91.
[11] Named after 16th Century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, is a religious doctrine which attempts to reconcile the providence of God with human free will: Joseph Pohle, “Semipelagianism” in Catholic Encyclopedia 1912.
[12] https://carm.org/semi-pelagianism [Note: Ironically there is also much dispute as to whether Cassian actually taught what he was accused of teaching as well: The view that Cassian propounded Semipelagianism has been disputed. Lauren Pristas, writes: “For Cassian, salvation is, from beginning to end, the effect of God’s grace. It is fully divine. Salvation, however, is salvation of a rational creature who has sinned through free choice. Therefore, salvation necessarily includes both free human consent in grace and the gradual rehabilitation in grace of the faculty of free choice. Thus Cassian insists salvation is also fully human. His thought, however, is not Semi-Pelagian, nor do readers who submit to the whole corpus emerge Semi-Pelagians.” [see Lauren Pristas (1993), The Theological Anthropology of John Cassian, PhD dissertation, Boston College, OCLC 39451854]