A quick look at the Pelagian heresy
When it comes to the study of church history and theology there is no doubt as to the worth of engaging in it. Over the many centuries of the church’s existence, there have been a multitude of theological issues at the forefront of hot debate. These discussions range anywhere from differing views of the Lord’s Supper, to disagreements about the divinity of Jesus, even disputes that regard the question of which mode of baptism is correct. All of these subjects of course are sincerely important, but there is one matter that still makes for intense discussion, even in today’s theological circles.
Using the practice of historical theology, a short but detailed discussion of free will as it pertains to a man named Pelagius will be the focus in this response. When matched up against traditional and historical Christianity, Pelagius and his Pelagian theology is ruined with severe error. There are three aspects of Pelagian theology that are important to consider. The first being the Pelagian view of original sin, followed by his view of total depravity, and ending with the implications of Pelagius’ theology on salvation by grace alone.
According to Pelagius, God created Adam in a state of moral neutrality, thus rendering Adam neither good nor evil. As a result, Adam had a free will in which he could choose to do good or to sin freely. Eventually this free choice of Adam led to him and Eve eating of the fruit that God had forbidden them to eat. The end result was Adam falling into sin. Pelagius thought that even though Adam had sinned, this act of disobedience did not affect his will in any way, but only changed his eternal destiny.
In contrast to Pelagius’ belief, biblical Christianity holds to the fact that when Adam sinned, his disobedience did in fact affect his will. Adam’s will became bound to sin, thus rendering him unable to choose freely apart from sin. This fall into sin also condemned the human race as a whole brining forth a humanity of sinners in rebellion against God. Adam was mankind’s representative before God just as Christ is our representative before God in salvation. (Rom. 5:12-21). This fall to sin in Adam is referred to as the doctrine of original sin.
This idea is in direct contradiction to what Pelagian theology teaches regarding original sin. According to Pelagius, Adam did not represent the human race as the covenant head, but rather is an example that others follow. Pelagius said that all men are born sinless just as Christ was born sinless. Every person’s will was not affected by Adam’s fall and they have the choice to choose as they like pertaining to God and salvation. Man can choose to follow or remain in sin. The only reason why men become sinners is because they choose to while having been influenced by Adam’s own decision to sin. As a result, Pelagian theology has no room for a doctrine like original sin as is understood by historical Christianity.
It logically follows then that Pelagian thought has no room for the biblical view of total depravity, the doctrine that teaches that all men by nature are sinners. Total depravity has a direct link to original sin in that since every human has sinned in Adam, every human is therefore born in complete rebellion against God (Eph. 2:1-3, Rom. 3:9-18, Jn. 3:36). There is no escaping the fact that Pelagian thought is not in accord with the biblical view of sin and the human condition.
Finally, Pelagius’ view of the human condition also means that he forfeits a biblical view of salvation by grace alone. If man has a completely free will and his will is not affected by sin in any way, then when a person is saved it means that they initiated salvation on their own accord and God responded. This is a very humanistic theology, if that is even possible to have, to hold to. The bible does not teach a synergistic view of salvation where man starts the conversion process and God finishes, but rather a monergistic position where God is the lone author of salvation in a sinner’s life (Eph. 2:8-10, Jn. 3:1-15). In Pelagian theology, there is no such thing as salvation by Grace alone as the biblical writers understood.
In the end, Pelagius’ view of the human condition pertaining to sin is completely wrong and unbiblical. It would do well for any biblical theologian in training to consider what Pelagius taught. Even though Pelagius was severely wrong in his thought, it is none-the-less a great exercise in historical theology to help modern day questions. May God be glorified in the study of historical theology and His bride be ever more increasing in knowledge to defend the truth of God’s Holy Word!