When discussing theology, I've come to realize that not only is personal study of doctrine a necessary component to faith, but it is something that shouldn't be kept to oneself. I want to share my journey, both past and ongoing, into the realm of theology. Through this, I hope that you will gain insight into the Christian faith as a whole. Before reading anything else, I suggest you read the introduction and definitions (found in the pages tabs above) so you may better understand where I am coming from in everything I write. Because many of my posts are on heresies, there is also a page above with a family tree of heresies and links to all the posts I have so far on the topic.

15 October, 2012

Heresies of the Week: Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism

Semi-Pelagianism is my "favorite" heresy, not because it is good, but because it is so darn entrenched today in Christendom.

But, to better understand Semi-Pelagianism, we must first look at Pelagianism, so you actually get two heresies this week.

Pelagianism is a 4th century heresy that denies that Original Sin tainted human nature (humanity is considered inherently good rather than fallen) and teaches that human will is able to choose good or evil without Divine aid.  It is also known as Limited Depravity.  In essence, they taught that while Adam’s sin sets a bad example, that action does not have consequences on his progeny.  The role of Jesus is to set the good example in contrast to Adam as well as providing atonement for sin.  Thus, every human has full control and responsibility for obeying the Gospel as well as for each sin.  Humans are sinners by choice; not victims of Original Sin, but criminals who need pardoning.  Mormonism is considered by some to be Pelagianist.  Pelagianism is the only heresy to also be condemned by every major sect of Protestantism as well as the Anglicans.  The Catholic Church condemned it on several occasions: Councils of Carthage (412, 416 and 418), the 431 Council of Ephesus, the 529 Council of Orange, and the 1546 Council of Trent.

In contrast, Semi-Pelagianism is a modified Pelagianism heresy which teaches that the beginning of faith is an act of free will, with grace interceding later to help grow faith (as opposed to full Pelagianism, which teaches all of faith is an act of man)—but grace is not fully needed, as man can choose to keep faith and choose good on his own.  The Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on faith (that the initiative comes from God, but man works in synergy with God through free will to come to faith) is a Semi-Pelagian teaching.  Because of their extreme emphasis on free will, Arminianism is also borderline Semi-Pelagianist (although the emphasis in Synergism is in a different order than Semi-Pelagianism).  It was originally thought to be the bridge between Augustinianism (emphasis on grace as taught by St. Augustine) and Pelagianism (emphasis on free will), but was condemned as heretical in 529 by the Second Council of Orange.  The 1577 Lutheran Epitome of the Formula of Concord also rejects Semi-Pelagianism.  

As mentioned in the description, both Roman Catholicism and Arminianism (the largest of the protestant sects as discussed in a previous post--comprising most of American protestantism, although I don't know anyone who would admit to being an Arminianist, even if they are) are at least partially Semi-Pelagian (which I will explain in further detail below).  

Before that, though, a little more about Pelagius, the heretic whose name was given to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.  Rev. Alex Klages wrote up a summary of Pelagius in two parts, found here and here.  Interestingly (probably because he is a Lutheran minister), he begins his post with this:
"I figured it was about time to dredge up one of the more major heretics, if for no other reason than the debate in which he and St. Augustine were engaged is still very much alive today. There are few true Pelagians, but I would assert that semi-Pelagianism is essentially the default theological position of North American culture." (emphasis mine)

Briefly, Pelagius...
  • was an Irish preacher in the late 4th and early 5th centuries.
  • was, by all accounts, a well-educated and pleasant man.
  • wrote a well-received position on the Trinity, and was largely respect until his position on man's fallen (or lack thereof) state and his teaching that man can choose to stop sinning became known.
  • made theological enemies with one of the greatest theologians, St. Augustine, over his heretical doctrine of Original Sin and the state of man.

Thank you, Google, for awesome image searches.  This appears to be the most common picture of Pelagius floating around the internet (sans the commentary on the side, which someone obviously added).  According to Wikipedia (the only source I could quickly find--and don't judge, I have several studies from my speech and debate days that say Wiki is by and large more accurate than any other encyclopaedia) this is a "17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius."

The controversy Pelagius started was in his answer to the following questions: 
  • Can man not sin? 
  • Is man inherently good or fallen?
  • What is man's role in his faith and salvation?

There are essentially three positions in response to these questions: Pelagianism (1), Semi-Pelagianism (2) and Augustinianism (3) (paraphrasing Rev. Klages from his first part on Pelagius, since he so succinctly summarized this).
  1. It is possible to not sin (posse non peccare).  Man is inherently good or neutral.  Man has free will in all situations to choose the spiritual correct thing.
  2. It is possible to not sin (posse non peccare).  While man is inherently sinful (Original Sin), he isn't entirely fallen and still has the opportunity to choose good (more neutral).  Man has free will to "choose" and "initiate" faith apart from grace, but needs God's grace to intercede for it to grow (however, man can "choose" to keep faith apart from grace).
  3. It is not possible not to sin (non posse non peccare).  Man is inherently sinful (Original Sin).  Apart from God's grace, man is unable to ever desire the spiritually correct thing.

Or, put another way (from Rev. Klages' Part Two on Pelagius):
Perhaps the best way of distinguishing between the three possible positions has to do with God’s grace vs. our part in salvation:
  • Pelagian: one can be saved apart from God’s grace if one tries hard enough, although belief in Jesus makes it easier.
  • Semi-Pelagian: God’s grace does most of the work, but there is always something left to the believer to “seal the deal,” whether that be personal preparation beforehand or good works after the moment of salvation.
  • Augustinian: God’s grace does it all. The human will is not the determinant of salvation.

Lutheranism teaches, in line with Augustinianism, that:
  • It is not possible not to sin (non posse non peccare).
  • Man is inherently sinful (Original Sin).
  • Apart from God's grace, man is unable to ever desire the spiritually correct thing (Isaiah 64:6).
  • Because man is tainted by Original Sin and unable to desire the spiritually correct thing apart from God's grace, man has a passive rather than active role in receiving salvation.
  • Man's "role" in salvation, if it may be called that, is to reject faith, not to receive it--because man can only desire spiritual evil apart from the grace of God; so no matter how much we think we would want it on our own, we cannot "choose" faith because of Original Sin... it is simply impossible to do this.
This teaching is also known as Monergism.

Conversely, Arminianism teaches, in line with Semi-Pelagianism, that:
  • It is possible to not sin (posse non peccare).
  • While man is inherently sinful (Original Sin), he isn't entirely fallen and still has the opportunity to choose good (and, indeed, must choose good because God can only offer faith, man must "receive" it).  
  • God offers faith, but man has to "choose" to "accept" faith on their own, through "prevenient grace", which God gives to all sinners.
  • Man's "role" in salvation, as a "response" to "prevenient grace", is to freely "choose" to "accept" faith in God
  • Once man "accepts" faith, God justifies man and continues to give further grace to sanctify man.
The primary difference between Synergism and Semi-Pelagianism is that in the latter, man can choose to have faith without grace, whereas in the previous, man can only have choose to have faith as a "response" to "prevenient grace".  Synergism is a heresy that will be covered in further detail in a later week.

Roman Catholicism, too, teaches a modified Semi-Pelagianism, that:
  • It is not possible not to sin (non posse non peccare).  
  • Man is inherently sinful (Original Sin).
  • Grace is the gift of God in Baptism.
  • Grace overcomes the taint of Original Sin, and then, with the aid of that grace, man can choose to do the spiritually correct thing and earn a storehouse of merit sufficient to overcome the punishment for sin (i.e. one can willingly do spiritually correct things if they continue to build their storehouse of merit through penance and Communion).
Lutherans would consider this Semi-Pelagianism because it asserts that man's works help in their salvation, when, as Isaiah 64:6 says, our best works are but filthy rags.  The teachings of Purgatory and Indulgences further this Semi-Pelagian idea that we can "work off" our sins or "buy" merit that is freely given in faith and already sufficient from Christ.

Calvinism is usually considered to teach Monergism, which is largely correct (although an incorrect form of Monergism), but many Calvinist/Reformed churches are extremely Legalistic.  Legalism is another form of Semi-Pelagianism, because it teaches that you must keep the Law in order to be "good enough" for salvation.  This form of works-righteousness is certainly in the vein of Semi-Pelagianism, even if they correctly teach of man's total depravity (in their case, before salvation).

Rev. Klages' Second Part on Pelagius has other good examples of the prevalence of Semi-Pelagianism in the modern church (and has been an excellent resource for my post, thanks to Pr. Snyder for suggesting that blog!).  To assemble my initial summaries, I used largely the writings of Early Church Fathers (specifically, St. Augustine in this case) and New Advent, which while Catholic, is an excellent resource overall on heresies.

While there is nothing new under the sun, most heresies have died out by now and future "Heresy of the Week" posts will likely be shorter and from a more historic perspective (rather than tying them into the modern church).

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