Who was Pelagius?

Question
I have been reading some on Pelagius, however different sources seem to have different information. I trust Thirdmill's scholarship, so briefly tell me: Who was Pelagius? What were some of his beliefs? Are his beliefs still practiced today?
Answer
Briefly, it is believed that Pelagius was born in Britain in c. 354-360 AD. He traveled to Rome (c. 380 AD) and while there began writing some theological works. Among other teachings, he promoted asceticism, denied the doctrine of predestination and original sin, and taught that man had the natural capacity to reject evil and seek after God. He asserted that man,by his own free will, could do works that pleased God and therefore be saved without saving grace — that is, follow the example of Jesus and not Adam and one would be saved.

His heretical views, commonly referred to as Pelagianism, were examined by such theologians as Augustine and Jerome who biblically and properly emphasized man's sinful human nature, the bondage of his will, and God's gift of grace in Christ (cf. Jer. 17:9; Eph. 2:1-3; 8-9). Pelagius was excommunicated by the bishop of Rome in 417 AD. Additionally, he and his beliefs were condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD, and this was reaffirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.

After the condemnation of Pelagianism, a new heresy developed called semi-Pelagianism. Though condemned at the Council of Orange in 529 AD, it taught that man, even after the Fall had some traces of good left in him. John Cassian (360-435 AD), an advocate of semi-Pelagianism, stated, "There are by nature some seeds of goodness in every soul implanted by the kindness of the Creator." [1] From this, it is falsely asserted that salvation is synergistic, that is, a co-operative effort between God's grace and human free will.

The kissing cousin of semi-Pelagianism is the doctrine of Arminianism taught by Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) and many others today (Methodists, Free Will Baptists, some other Baptists, Churches of Christ, Seventh-day Adventists, and The Salvation Army, etc.). The main difference is that in semi-Pelagianism, man takes the initiative in salvation, but in Arminianism God takes the initiative. However, either way, man's will (his works) cooperates in the attainment of salvation. This is not scriptural, as salvation is mongeristic; it is by grace alone and not by works (Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 1:3). Though Adam and Eve were created good, because of the Fall, all are born with a depraved sinful nature and are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins (cf. Jer. 17:9; Eph. 2:1-3). Therefore, mankind is wholly dependent upon God's grace alone for salvation. As Jesus stated, "Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again" (John 3:7).

It should be noted that though Arminian theology claims to believe in original sin and totally depravity, they also affirm the doctrine of prevenient grace [2] which in essence nullifies the effect of one's depravity! So, violating the law of non-contradiction, in Arminianism, man has an actual inability and an actual ability as well. As John Wesley once preached:

For allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing [i.e. prevenient] grace ... Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And everyone, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath. [3]

This doesn't seem any different from semi-Pelagianism which maintains, "It was by grace that each stage of conversion was effected." [4] As can be plainly seen, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism at a minimum have an errant view of the bondage of the human will, man's sin nature, biblical regeneration, and the power of God's grace. They are all false systems of theology.

Reference

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 323-324.

[2] Prevenient means "coming before." It is understood to be grace that precedes or comes before salvation. Prevenient Grace essentially states that God has graciously restored to all humanity the freedom of will lost in the Fall of Adam in the Garden. Therefore, Prevenient Grace, provides all people with the opportunity to choose or reject Christ. This is not a biblical doctrine.

[3] John Wesley. Sermon on Philippians 2:12-13 entitled, On Working out our own Salvation. (1782, 1785).

[4] Pelikan, p. 324.

Related Topics

Catholics and Justification?
Theological Flowerbeds - DAISY vs. TULIP
Calvinism and Joshua 24:15?
Is everyone born a sinner?
What Does It Mean to be Saved by Grace Alone?
Predestination
Please see the book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids, MI, 1932), by Loraine Boettner.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).