Pelagian Captivity of the Church by Chuck Collins

Pelagian Captivity of the Church

By Revd Canon Chuck Collins

The church is in Pelagian captivity! Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism is the air Roman Catholics breath and it’s the favourite heresy of Protestants. From the performance metric that requires righteous actions enough for salvation, the moralism of the do-more and try-harder “celebration of the disciplines,” to the Lordship Salvation movement (your obedience is required to compete what is lacking in your salvation), human beings naturally think and live “Pelagian.” Moral improvement is the pulpit proclamation of the day, and what God did and does for sinners in his Son Jesus Christ is on the back burner or not served at all.

On May 1, 418 over two hundred bishops meeting in Carthage declared Pelagius a heretic and refused to ordain Caelestius, Pelagius’s disciple, when he would not renounce the teaching. Pelagius was a 5th century British monk who was ridiculously popular for teaching the message people wanted to hear. He held a view of original sin weak enough to allow the possibility that someone can actively contribute towards their own salvation. Pelagius challenged Augustine Bishop of Hippo by promoting a sunnier, more optimistic  picture of human nature. He believed that Adam’s sin affected Adam only and that men and women are born morally neutral and free to sin or not to sin. This view of a high anthropology (a confident view of “free will”) always results in a low christology (we don’t need a Saviour as much as we need a good example to emulate – don’t be like Adam!). 

At the “Council of Africa” (as Augustine called the Council of Carthage), the catholic church restated what the Bible teaches about human nature. Augustine believed that our love for sin is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s original disobedience (the Fall), and that the end result is that all people are spiritually infected, dead in our trespasses and sins, and “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2). We sin because we are sinners (Original Sin, Rom 5). Much later Martin Luther talked about this stating that we are by nature people turn/curved (incurvatus in se) in on ourselves rather than towards God and others. It is the Holy Spirit who works in us a new and more worthy love so as to be reconciled to God, the unholy to the holy, and to free our wills to be able to love.

Semi-pelagianism, a term coined in the 17th century, was an invented compromise. It teaches that salvation is won by cooperative (synergistic) efforts between God and his people. Unlike the hardcore Pelagianists, semi-Pelagianists believe in the universality of original sin while still upholding the individual’s free will to choose for or against God. They tend to distinguish between the beginning of faith and the increase of faith – the beginning is an act of free will (“I have decided to follow Jesus”), and this then ignites grace in us for Christian living and spiritual growth. Augustinians, on the other hand, are inclined to credit God completely for salvation, he who moves us by his grace to move towards God.

Why is this the only heresy mentioned in Anglican’s confession that was written more than a thousand years after Pelagius? It is because pride and works-righteousness is the default heresy (Fleming Rutledge talks about the “Pelagian Default”) of all people in all generations. Anglicans are plainly Augustinian in our anthropology. We believe that men and women, apart from grace, are incapable of doing anything but to continue to sin. Article 9 states that “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil.” The Article goes on to say that “this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated.” The Anglican homily“The Misery of All Mankind” is devoted completely to this subject, citing forty-seven Bible passages that teach the pervasiveness of sin. “For of ourselves we are crabtrees that can bring forth no apples. We are of ourselves of such earth as can bring forth only weeds, nettles, brambles, briers, corncockle, and darnel” (Second Homily, Lee Gatiss Ed.).