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Monday
Feb182008

Theological Term of the Week

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Pelagianism
A view of the nature of humanity that has been condemned as heretical throughout Christian history. In this view, humanity is seen as basically good and the doctrine of original sin is denied.
 
  • From Michael Horton, in Pelagianism: The Religion of Natural Man.
    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.

    …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.”
  • From Pelagianism by R. Scott Clark:
    The Pelagian a Priori

    The key unstated presupposition, in Pelagius’ argument, was that there is a universal standard of justice to which all, even God are bound. Flowing from this belief is the further belief that justice requires absolute freedom of the will. Why? Because if God is absolutely sovereign, then humans must be only puppets, thus depriving God of his justice by stripping humans of their freedom and their moral responsibility. God is just. Therefore humans must have a free will. (28)

    Anthropology

    Pelagius’ notion of justice required him to deny any link between Adam and us. God, he argued, cannot blame us for another’s sin (29). Since Pelagius broke entirely the link (whether biological or legal) between Adam and us, he concluded that the only way in which sin can be transmitted is through imitation of Adam’s example (30). “[B]efore he begins exercising his will, there is only in him what God has created.” (31)

Learn more

  1. The entire two articles quoted and linked above are recommended reads.
  2. Theopedia: Pelagianism
This theological term was suggested in a round about way by Chris. Have you come across a theological term that you don’t understand and you’d like to see featured here as a Theological Term of the Week? If you email it to me, I’ll seriously consider using it, giving you credit for the suggestion and linking back to your blog when I do.
 
Click on the graphic above to find a list of all the past Theological Terms of the Week in alphabetical order.

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