Pelagianism: The Religion of
Michael S. Horton
1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Cicero observed of his own civilization that people thank the gods
for their material prosperity, but never for their virtue, for this
is their own doing. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield considered Pelagianism
"the rehabilitation of that heathen view of the world," and
concluded with characteristic clarity, "There are fundamentally
only two doctrines of salvation: that salvation is from God, and that
salvation is from ourselves. The former is the doctrine of common Christianity;
the latter is the doctrine of universal heathenism."1
But Warfield's sharp criticisms are consistent with the witness of
the church ever since Pelagius and his disciples championed the heresy.
St. Jerome, the fourth century Latin father, called it "the heresy
of Pythagoras and Zeno," as in general paganism rested on the fundamental
conviction that human beings have it within their power to save themselves.
What, then, was Pelagianism and how did it get started?
First, this heresy originated with the first human couple, as we shall
see soon. It was actually defined and labeled in the fifth century,
when a British monk came to Rome. Immediately, Pelagius was deeply impressed
with the immorality of this center of Christendom, and he set out to
reform the morals of clergy and laity alike. This moral campaign required
a great deal of energy and Pelagius found many supporters and admirers
for his cause. The only thing that seemed to stand in his way was the
emphasis that emanated particularly from the influential African bishop,
Augustine. Augustine taught that human beings, because they are born
in original sin, are incapable of saving themselves. Apart from God's
grace, it is impossible for a person to obey or even to seek God. Representing
the entire race, Adam sinned against God. This resulted in the total
corruption of every human being since, so that our very wills are in
bondage to our sinful condition. Only God's grace, which he bestows
freely as he pleases upon his elect, is credited with the salvation
of human beings.
In sharp contrast, Pelagius was driven by moral concerns and his theology
was calculated to provide the most fuel for moral and social improvement.
Augustine's emphasis on human helplessness and divine grace would surely
paralyze the pursuit of moral improvement, since people could sin with
impunity, fatalistically concluding, "I couldn't help it; I'm a
sinner." So Pelagius countered by rejecting original sin. According
to Pelagius, Adam was merely a bad example, not the father of our sinful
condition-we are sinners because we sin-rather than vice versa. Consequently,
of course, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, was a good example. Salvation
is a matter chiefly of following Christ instead of Adam, rather than
being transferred from the condemnation and corruption of Adam's race
and placed "in Christ," clothed in his righteousness and made
alive by his gracious gift. What men and women need is moral direction,
not a new birth; therefore, Pelagius saw salvation in purely naturalistic
terms-the progress of human nature from sinful behavior to holy behavior,
by following the example of Christ.
In his Commentary on Romans, Pelagius thought of grace as God's revelation
in the Old and New Testaments, which enlightens us and serves to promote
our holiness by providing explicit instruction in godliness and many
worthy examples to imitate. So human nature is not conceived in sin.
After all, the will is not bound by the sinful condition and its affections;
choices determine whether one will obey God, and thus be saved.
In 411, Paulinus of Milan came up with a list of six heretical points
in the Pelagian message. (1) Adam was created mortal and would have
died whether he had sinned or not; (2) the sin of Adam injured himself
alone, not the whole human race; (3) newborn children are in the same
state in which Adam was before his fall; (4) neither by the death and
sin of Adam does the whole human race die, nor will it rise because
of the resurrection of Christ; (5) the law as well as the gospel offers
entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven; and (6) even before the coming of
Christ, there were men wholly without sin. 2 Further, Pelagius and his
followers denied unconditional predestination.
It is worth noting that Pelagianism was condemned by more church councils
than any other heresy in history. In 412, Pelagius's disciple Coelestius
was excommunicated at the Synod of Carthage; the Councils of Carthage
and Milevis condemned Pelagius' De libero arbitrio--On the Freedom of
the Will; Pope Innocent I excommunicated both Pelagius and Coelestius,
as did Pope Zosimus. Eastern emperor Theodosius II banished the Pelagians
from the East as well in AD 430. The heresy was repeatedly condemned
by the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Second Council of Orange in
529. In fact, the Council of Orange condemned even Semi-Pelagianism,
which maintains that grace is necessary, but that the will is free by
nature to choose whether to cooperate with the grace offered. The Council
of Orange even condemned those who thought that salvation could be conferred
by the saying of a prayer, affirming instead (with abundant biblical
references) that God must awaken the sinner and grant the gift of faith
before a person can even seek God.
Anything that falls short of acknowledging original sin, the bondage
of the will, and the need for grace to even accept the gift of eternal
life, much less to pursue righteousness, is considered by the whole
church to be heresy. The heresy described here is called "Pelagianism."
Pelagianism in the Bible
Cain murdered Abel because Cain sought to offer God his own sacrifice.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Abel offered his sacrifice in
anticipation of the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God, and did so by
faith rather than by works (Heb. 11). However, Cain sought to be justified
by his own works. When God accepted Abel instead, Cain became jealous.
His hatred for Abel was probably due in part to his own hatred of God
for refusing to accept his righteousness. This pattern had already emerged
with the contrast between the fig leaves that Adam and Eve sewed to
cover their nakedness. Running from God's judgment, covering up the
shame that resulted from sin-these are the characteristics of human
nature ever since the fall. "There is no one who is righteous,
not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks after
God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there
is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-12). The nearer
God comes to us, the greater sense we have of our own unworthiness,
so we hide from him and try to cover up our shame with our own clever
At the Tower of Babel, the attitude expressed is clearly Pelagian:
"Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches
to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves. " In
fact, they were certain that such a united human project could ensure
that nothing would be impossible for them (Gen 11:46). But God
came down, just as they were building upward toward the heavens. "So
the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped
building the city" (v.8). This is the pattern: God provides the
sacrifice, and judges those who offer their own sacrifices to appease
God. God comes down to dwell with us, we do not climb up to him; God
finds us, we do not find him.
The people of Israel regularly found themselves reverting to the pagan
way of thinking. God had to remind them, "'Cursed is the one who
trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart
turns away from the LORD But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.'" Jeremiah responds, "The heart
is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?...
Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved,
for you are the one I praise" (Jer 17:5, 7, 9, 15). Jonah learned
the hard way that God saves whomever he wants to save. Just as soon
as he declared, "Salvation comes from the LORD," we read:
"And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry
land" (Jon 2:910). The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar faced
a similar confrontation, when his self-confidence was turned to humiliation
by God. He finally raised his eyes toward heaven and confessed, "All
the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold
back his hand or say to him: 'What have you done'" (Dn 4:35). The
clear message: God saves freely, by his own choice and action, to his
own praise and glory.
We find Pelagianism among the Pharisees in the New Testament. Remember,
the foundation of Pelagianism is the belief that we do not inherit Adam's
sinful condition. We are born morally neutral, capable of choosing which
way we will turn. Sin is something that affects us from the outside,
so that if a good person sins, it must be due to some external influence.
This is why it is so important, according to this way of thinking, to
avoid bad company and evil influences: It will corrupt an otherwise
good person. This Pelagian mentality pervaded the thinking of the Pharisees,
as when they asked Jesus why they he did not follow the Jewish rituals.
"Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen and understand.
What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes
out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'" This theological
orientation was so unfamiliar to the disciples that Jesus had to restate
the point: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery,
sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make
a man 'unclean'" (Mt 15:1020). Later, Jesus scolded the Pharisees
with these harsh words: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,
you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside
they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean
the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are
like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the
inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same
way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside
you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness" (Mt 23:2528).
Therefore, Jesus told them that they must be "born from above"
(Jn 3:5). The Pharisees believed that God had given them his grace by
giving them the law, and if they merely followed the law and the traditions
of the elders, they would remain in God's favor. But Jesus said that
they were unbelievers who needed to be regenerated, not good people
who needed to be guided. "No man can even come to me unless my
Father who sent me draws him" (Jn 6:44), for we must be born again,
"not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God"
(Jn 1:13). "Apart from me you can do nothing. You did not choose
me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-fruit that
will last" (Jn 15:5, 16).
This message was at the center of the apostolic message, as Paul defended
the grace of God against the Judaizing heresy that sought to turn Jesus
into merely another Moses. Centering on the person and work of Christ,
Paul and the other apostles denied any place for self-confidence before
God. Instead, they knew that we possess neither the ability, free will,
power, nor the righteousness to repair ourselves and escape the wrath
of God. It must all be God's work, Christ's work, or there is no salvation
at all. Surely the Judaizing heresy that troubled the apostles was larger
than the issue of Pelagianism, but self-righteousness and self-salvation
lay at the bottom of it. As such, the Council of Jerusalem, recorded
in Acts 15, was the first church council to actually condemn this heresy
in the New Testament era.
Pelagianism in Church History
Every dark age in church history was due to the creeping influence of
the human-centered gospel of "pulling oneself up by the bootstraps."
Whenever God is seen as the sole author and finisher of salvation, there
is health and vitality;. To the degree that human beings are seen as
agents of their own salvation, the church loses its power, since the
Gospel is "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes"
Throughout the period that is popularly known as the "dark ages,"
Pelagianism was never officially endorsed, but it was certainly common
and perhaps even the most popular and widespread tendency among the
masses. That should come as no surprise, since thinking good of our
nature and of possibilities for its improvement is the tendency of our
sinful condition. We are all Pelagians by nature. There were debates,
for instance, in the eighth century, but these did not end well for
those who defended a strict Augustinian point of view. Since Pelagianism
had been condemned by councils, no one dared defend a view as "Pelagian,"
but Semi-Pelagianism was acceptable, since the canons of the Council
of Orange, which condemned Semi-Pelagianism, had been lost and were
not recovered until after the closing of the Council of Trent in the
On the eve of the Reformation, there were fresh debates over free will
and grace. Reformers benefited from something of a renaissance of Augustinianism.
In the fourteenth century, two Oxford lecturers, Robert Holcot and Archbishop
of Canterbury Thomas Bradwardine, became leading antagonists in this
battle. Two centuries before the Reformation, Bradwardine wrote The
Case of God Against the New Pelagians, but, "Holcot and a host
of later interpreters found Bradwardine's defense of the 'case of God'
was at the expense of the dignity of man." 3 If that sounds familiar,
it should, since the truth and its corresponding objections never change.
The archbishop's own story gives us some insight to the place of this
Idle and a fool in God's wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error
at the time when I was pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went
to listen to the theologians discussing this matter [of grace and free
will], and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth. In
the philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except
for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that
we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act
well or badly, to have virtues or sins and much more along this line."
Therefore, "Every time I listened to the Epistle reading in church
and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will-as is the
case in Romans 9, 'It is obviously not a question of human will and
effort, but of divine mercy,' and its many parallels-grace displeased
me, ungrateful as I was." But later, things changed:
"However, even before I transferred to the faculty of theology,
the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and, captured by a
vision of the truth, it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God
precedes all good works with a temporal priority, God as Savior through
predestination, and natural precedence. That is why I express my gratitude
to Him who has given me this grace as a free gift."
Bradwardine begins his treatise, "The Pelagians now oppose our
whole presentation of predestination and reprobation, attempting either
to eliminate them completely or, at least, to show that they are dependent
on personal merits." 4
These are important references, since many think of the emphasis of
Luther in The Bondage of the Will and of Calvin in his many writings
on the subject as extreme, when in actual fact, they were in the mainstream
of Augustinian revival. In fact, Luther's mentor, Johann von Staupitz,
was himself a defender of Augustinian orthodoxy against the new tide
of Pelagianism, and contributed his own treatise, On Man's Eternal Predestination.
"God has covenanted to save the elect. Not only is Christ sent
as a substitute for the believer's sins, he also makes certain that
this redemption is applied. This happens at the moment when the sinner's
eyes are opened again by the grace of God, so that he is able to know
the true God by faith. Then his heart is set afire so that God becomes
pleasing to him. Both of these are nothing but grace, and flow from
the merits of Christ Our works do not, nor can they, bring us to this
state, since man's nature is not capable of knowing or wanting or doing
good. For this barren man God is sheer fear."
But for the believer, "the Christian is just through the righteousness
of Christ," and Staupitz even goes so far as to say, that this
suffering of Christ "is sufficient for all, though it was not for
all, but for many that his blood was poured out." 5 This was not
an extreme statement, as it is often considered today, but was the most
common way of talking about the atonement's effect: sufficient for everyone,
efficient for the elect alone.
To be sure, these precursors of the Reformation were not yet articulating
a clear doctrine of justification by the imputation of Christ's righteousness,
but the official position of the Roman Catholic Church even before the
Reformation was that grace is necessary for even the will to believe
and live the Christian life. This is not far enough for evangelicals,
but to fall short of this affirmation is to lose touch with even the
"catholic" witness shared at least on paper by Protestants
and Roman Catholics.
What About Today?
Ever since the Enlightenment, the Protestant churches have been influenced
by successive waves of rationalism and moralism that have made the Pelagian
heresy attractive. It is fascinating, if frustrating, to read the great
architects of modern liberalism as they triumphantly announce their
project. They sound as if it were a new theological enterprise to say
that human nature is basically good, history is marked by progress,
that social and moral improvement will create happiness, peace, and
justice. Really, it is merely a revival of that age-old religion of
human nature. The rationalistic phase of liberalism saw religion not
as a plan of salvation, but as a method of morality. The older views
concerning human sinfulness and dependence on divine mercy were thought
by modern theologians to stand in the way of the Enlightenment project
of building a new world, a tower reaching to heaven, just as Pelagius
viewed Augustinian teaching as impeding his project of moral reform.
Instead of defining Christianity in terms of an announcement of God's
saving work in Jesus Christ, Schleiermacher and the liberal theologians
redefined it as a "feeling." Ironically, the Arminian revivals
shared with the Enlightenment a confidence in human ability. This Pelagian
spirit pervaded the frontier revivals as much as the New England academy.
Although poets such as William Henley might put it in more sophisticated
language ("I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul"),
evangelicals out on the frontier began adapting this triumph of Pelagianism
to the wider culture.
Heavily influenced by the New Haven theology and the Second Great Awakening,
Charles Finney was nearly the nineteenth-century reincarnation of Pelagius.
Finney denied original sin. "Moral depravity is sin itself, and
not the cause of sin," 6 and he explicitly rejects original sin
in his criticism of the Westminster Confession, 7 referring to the notion
of a sinful nature as "anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma."
8 According to Finney, we are all born morally neutral, capable either
of choosing good or evil. Finney argues throughout by employing the
same arguments as the German rationalists, and yet because he was such
a successful revivalist and "soul-winner," evangelicals call
him their own. Finney held that our choices make us either good or sinful.
Here Finney stands closer to the Pharisees than to Christ, who declared
that the tree produced the fruit rather than vice versa. Finney's denial
of the substitutionary atonement follows this denial of original sin.
After all, according to Pelagius, if Adam can be said to be our agent
of condemnation for no other reason than that we follow his poor example,
then Christ is said to be our agent of redemption because we follow
his good example. This is precisely what Finney argues: "Example
is the highest moral influence that can be exerted. If the benevolence
manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners,
their case is hopeless." 9 But how can there be a "benevolence
manifested in the atonement" if the atonement does not atone? For
those of us who need an atonement that not only subdues our selfishness,
but covers the penalty for our selfishness, Finney's "gospel,"
like Pelagius's, is hardly good news.
According to Finney, Christ could not have fulfilled the obedience
we owed to God, since it would not be rational that one man could atone
for the sins of anyone besides himself. Furthermore, "If he obeyed
the law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal
obedience be insisted upon as the sine qua non of our salvation?"10
One wonders if Finney was actually borrowing directly from Pelagius'
writings. Many assume "that the atonement was a literal payment
of a debt, which we have seen does not consist with the nature of the
atonement. It is objected that, if the atonement was not the payment
of the debt of sinners, but general in its nature, as we have maintained,
it secures the salvation of no one. It is true, that the atonement,
of itself, does not secure the salvation of any one." 11
Furthermore, Finney denies that regeneration depends on the supernatural
gift of God. It is not a change produced from the outside. "If
it were, sinners could not be required to effect it. No such change
is needed, as the sinner has all the faculties and natural attributes
requisite to render perfect obedience to God." 12 Therefore, "...regeneration
consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference."
Those who insist that sinners depend on the mercy of God proclaim "the
most abominable and ruinous of all falsehoods. It is to mock [the sinner's]
Of the doctrine of justification, Finney declared it to be "another
gospel," since "for sinners to be forensically pronounced
just, is impossible and absurd. As has already been said, there can
be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground
of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law...The doctrine
of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ's obedience to the law was
accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical
assumption" and "representing the atonement as the ground
of the sinner's justification has been a sad occasion of stumbling to
From Finney and the Arminian revivalists, evangelicalism inherited
as great a debt to Pelagianism as modern liberalism received from the
Enlightenment version directly. When evangelists appeal to the unbeliever
as though it was his choice that determines his destiny, they are not
only operating on Arminian assumptions, but Pelagian assumptions that
are rejected even by the official position of the Roman Catholic Church
as a denial of grace. Whenever it is maintained that an unbeliever is
capable by nature of choosing God, or that men and women are capable
of not sinning or of reaching a state of moral perfection, that's Pelagianism.
Finney even preached a sermon titled, "Sinners Bound To Change
Their Own Hearts." When preachers attack those who insist that
the human problem is sinfulness and the wickedness of the human heart-that's
Pelagianism. When one hears the argument, whether from the Enlightenment
(Kant's "ought implies can"), or from Wesley, Finney, or modern
teachers, that "God would never have commanded the impossible,"
15 they are echoing the very words of Pelagius. Those who deny that
faith is the gift of God are not merely Arminians or Semi-Pelagians,
but Pelagians. Even the Council of Trent (condemning the reformers)
anathematized such a denial as Pelagianism.
When evangelicals and fundamentalists assume that infants are pure
until they reach an "age of accountability," or that sin is
something outside-in the world or in the sinful environment or in sinful
company that corrupts the individual-they are practicing Pelagians.
That which in contemporary evangelicalism is often considered "Calvinism"
is really "Augustinianism," which embraces orthodox Roman
Catholics and Lutherans as well. And that which in our circles today
is often considered "Arminianism" is really Pelagianism.
The fact that recent polls indicate that 77% of the evangelicals today
believe that human beings are basically good and 84% of these conservative
Protestants believe that in salvation "God helps those who help
themselves" demonstrates incontrovertibly that contemporary Christianity
is in a serious crisis. No longer can conservative, "Bible-believing"
evangelicals smugly hurl insults at mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics
for doctrinal treason. It is evangelicals today, every bit as much as
anyone else, who have embraced the assumptions of the Pelagian heresy.
It is this heresy that lies at the bottom of much of popular psychology
(human nature, basically good, is warped by its environment), political
crusades (we are going to bring about salvation and revival through
this campaign), and evangelism and church growth (seeing conversion
as a natural process, just like changing from one brand of soap to another,
and seeing the evangelist or entrepreneurial pastor as the one who actually
adds to the church those to be saved).
At its root, the Reformation was an attack on Pelagianism and its rising
influence, as it choked out the life of Christ in the world. It asserted
that "salvation is of the LORD" (Jon 2:9), and that "it
therefore does not depend on the decision or effort of man, but on the
mercy of God" (Rom 9:16). If that message is recovered, and Pelagianism
is once more confronted with the Word of God, the glory of God will
again fill the earth.
1. B. B. Warfield, The
Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1980), p. 33.
2. Taken from the entry on Pelagianism in the Westminster Dictionary
of Church History.
3. Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation (Philadelphia: Fortress,
4. Ibid., pp. 151-162.
5. Ibid., pp. 175-200.
6. Charles Finney, Finney's Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany,
1976), p. 172.
7. Ibid., p. 177.
8. Ibid., p. 179.
9. Ibid., p. 209.
10. Ibid., p. 206.
11. Ibid., p. 213.
12. Ibid., p.221.
13. Ibid., p.226.
14. Ibid., pp. 319-323.
15. B. R. Rees, ed., The Letters of Pelagius and His Followers (Woodbridge,
England: The Boydell Press, 1991), p.169.
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical
theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate
of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.)
and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited
include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power
Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.