By Matthew Barrett

How do you know when a church moves from being a less than healthy church, but nonetheless still a true church, to being a false church altogether? There are perhaps many ways to detect whether a church has become a false church (a rejection of the gospel should be at the top of the list). But one way to easily detect whether a church is heading in the direction of becoming a false church is whether or not they have decided to embrace heresy or heretics.

Heretics come in all shapes and sizes. And the churches that open their pulpits to them are equally diverse. However, it is not too often that we see a church embrace a dead heretic! But this is exactly what is being proposed by the Diocese of Atlanta in passing a resolution seeking to honor Pelagius and reinstate him as a theologian whose writings should be valued and embraced (HT: Michael Horton). It is no secret that the U.S. Episcopal Church leadership is at the center of controversy on a handful of matters, but this one strikes a new cord. The resolution reads as follows:

R11-7 Contributions of Pelagius

Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans, Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

In light of this shocking resolution to reinstate Pelagius, it is essential that we briefly remember what Pelagius actually taught that was so downright heretical.

The Denial of Original Sin

According to Pelagius, the fall of Adam transmitted no corruption or guilt to Adam’s posterity. Pelagius denied the reality of original sin, consisting of both inherited guilt and corruption. Instead, Adam merely set a bad example for his children and all who followed. Commenting on Romans 5:12 Pelagius explains, “They are not condemned, because the statement that all have sinned in Adam was not uttered on account of a sin contracted by reason of their origin through being born, but on account of the imitation of Adam’s sin.” Therefore, Adam’s sin maimed and injured himself alone. The corruption of the human race seen throughout history then is not due to hereditary guilt and corruption but rather to an evil habit acquired through the bad examples of those who have come before.

The Freedom of the Will

Since, according to Pelagius, no guilt or corruption is inherited by Adam’s posterity so also is the will free from such corruption. The will is not enslaved to sin or in bondage to sin but just as able after the fall as before to choose that which is good. As Schaff states, for Pelagius, “Sin, however, is not born with man; it is not a product of nature, but of the will.” Man does not sin because his nature is corrupt from birth and consequently his will is necessarily inclined towards evil, but if man sins (for it is possible for man not to sin at all) it is due to the evil examples set before him. For Pelagius, the will remains free, undamaged by the sin of Adam, and therefore retains the ability in and of itself to choose God unto salvation.

The Pelagian Definition of Grace

For Pelagius, since man is not infected by the guilt or corruption of Adam’s sin and consequently man’s will retains its ability to equally choose good or evil, grace lacks necessity. Pelagius puts the matter bluntly, “The will is not free, if it needs God’s help.” Moreover, when grace is described by Pelagius it is used in three ways. First, grace may refer to the grace of creation which allows man, heathens included, to live perfectly or in sinlessness (impeccantia). Second, grace can refer to the law (lex). The grace of the law is that which instructs man, facilitating and guiding man to do that which is righteous. Third, grace may refer to Christ who gives us an example to follow. It is essential to recognize that the second use of grace as law means that “grace was given secundum merita (according to the merits of the rational spirit).” In other words, the Pelagians believed that God gives grace to those who merit it. In short, grace is something that must be earned. Consequently, as Harnack observes, “the gospel is not different from that of the law, the former is in point of fact completely reduced to the level of the latter.”

It is evident that for Pelagius grace does not consist in a sovereign or efficacious work of the Spirit upon a depraved sinner, but in an illumination or revelation of the law of God (i.e., an acquired knowledge of the law). Furthermore, since the will is untainted by a hereditary corruption, all of mankind retains a power of contrary choice, capable of obeying the commandments of God for eternal life. Schaff concludes,

If human nature is uncorrupted, and the natural will competent to all good, we need no Redeemer to create in us a new will and a new life, but merely an improver and enabler; and salvation is essentially the work of man. The Pelagian system has really no place for the ideas of redemption, atonement, regeneration, and new creation. It substitutes for them our own moral effort to perfect our natural powers, and the mere addition of the grace of God as a valuable aid and support.

Pelagius Alive Today

It is important to remember that Pelagius and his views were condemned in 416 at the synods of Carthage and Mileve, and again at Carthage in 418. Even the third ecumenical council in Ephesus in 431 would condemn Pelagius, placing him in the same category as Nestorius. To reinstate or approve of Pelagius and his views is to adopt heresy itself. It should not surprise us when a church who adopts a heretic, dead or alive, begins to also teach that same heresy. Heaven forbid that Pelagianism should make a comeback in mainline Christian churches. Or has it already?

Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two daughters, Cassandra and Georgia. He is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.