On the Depravity of Man (Part 2): Historical Positions: Pelagian & Semi-Pelagian

by Jeremy Peters

What Have Been the Historical Positions?

Having established some of the presuppositions that will undergird the discussion in this paper, it’s necessary to look at the historical debate on the issue. The extent of man’s corruption in sin has been discussed throughout history. And it would be arrogant to make conclusions without considering what has been said by others. The focus here will be on four primary views that have influenced the Church. These are the main positions that are taken even today. In this post, Jeremy Peters will review the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian positions.

Pelagian

The theological position known as “Pelagian,” received its name from the main proponent of the view, Pelagius. He rose up as a challenge to the Church’s development of the doctrine of sin (hamartiology), in the fifth century.[1] Moral corruption of the papacy in Rome caused him to become quite angry towards the lack of personal responsibility for holiness. When he came across a particular prayer written by Augustine, he saw it as the theological basis for the hypocrisy: “Give what you command and command what you will.”[2] Pelagius saw this as a passive attitude, that encouraged people to sit idly, waiting for God to enable them to do what they ought to do. This sparked a long argument between the two, in which Pelagius contended that man already had the capacity to keep God’s commands, both the volition and ability.[3] He believed that the ability to act on one’s own will was essential to being human.[4] He also believed that man was inherently able to do good, or evil, because God had created him, in His image, with intellect, emotion, and will, knowing good and evil.[5] Since God commanded holiness (Lev 19:2), and perfection (Matt 5:48), man had the ability to be sinless.[6]

His predecessor, Celestius, summarizes six central tenets of Pelagianism, of which articles two, five, and six are of particular interest here: 2) Adam’s sin harmed only himself and not the human race; 5) newborn infants are in the same condition as Adam was before the fall; and 6) the whole human race does not, on the one hand, die through Adam’s death or transgression, nor, on the other hand, does the whole human race rise again through the resurrection of Christ.[7] Each person is neutral, without the stains of Adam’s sin, and with the responsibility to determine their own natures.[8]

Pelagius did not deny that God’s grace was at work in salvation, but he thought of it as only an external aid. God reveals His perfect will, in the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ, which works alongside man’s ability to do good by convincing him to actually do so.[9] This position reappeared after the Reformation, in the form of Socinianism. In which, according to the Racovian Catechism, Adam’s sin only had an effect on his own disposition to sin.[10] Therefore, the Pelagian view on the extent of man’s corruption by sin, is that he is not fallen into sin at all.

Semi-Pelagian

The position known as “semi-Pelagian,” obviously correlates somehow to the previous position, of Pelagius. It’s actually a term that was only coined in the sixteenth century. But, the view already existed in the fifth and sixth centuries, reflecting a partial acceptance of the Pelagian explanation of man’s current state.[11] John Cassian, who was the primary champion of the position, agreed with Pelagius that man had the ability to choose either good or evil.[12] But, instead of seeing God’s grace only as an external aid, he insisted that God’s grace actually works within a man, to assist the will.[13] He stated, “The main share in our salvation is to be ascribed not to the merit of our own works but to heavenly grace.”[14] But, he still believed there was enough good within the will of man to cooperate with God’s grace.[15]

This view gained precedence at the Synod or Arles in 473 AD, which concluded that man’s will was effected by the Fall, but is still able to choose good, even before God’s grace has done any internal work.[16] Therefore, the semi-Pelagian view on the extent of man’s fall, is that man’s nature was effected by Adam’s Fall, producing an inclination towards sin, within every human being since. But, enough good remains, so that people have an ability to cooperate with God to bring about their salvation.[17] Man is only partially fallen into sin.


[1] Allison, Historical Theology, 345.

[2] Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. by E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 10.29.

[3] Much of Pelagius’ position, has been reconstructed from the works of Augustine, simply because there aren’t many of Pelagius’ writings preserved for today. Augustine, On the Grace of Christ, 1.5, in Alexander Roberts et al., eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st ser., vol. 5 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 218–19.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pelagius’ language is confusing here, when he uses the term “grace” for God’s enabling man to do good. But, “grace” according to Pelagius was not God assisting in man to do good practically, but giving him the ability to do good inherently. God granted grace for good works when He created man, but from there the desires and choices to do good come from man’s power to act as he chooses. Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias, in Joel F. Harrington, ed., A Cloud of Witnesses: Readings in the History of Western Christianity (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 100.

This intersects the discussion on “free will,” which is also important to understand concerning the extent of man’s fall, but can’t be expanded here. See, Augustine, A Treatise on Grace and Free Will, in Roberts, Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, 1st ser., vol. 5, c. 34; Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will: Martin Luther’s Reply to Erasmus of Rotterdam, trans. by J.I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1957).

[6] Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias, in A Cloud of Witnesses, 101.

[7] The other articles have to do with the nature of man, but not with the effect of Adam’s sin. Augustine, On the Proceedings of Pelagius, 23.11, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 1st ser., vol. 5, 193. There is also an obvious overlap here with the doctrine of “original sin,” to which reference has been made above, on p. 3

[8] Pelagius sees “the Fall” as setting a bad example, which has been followed by the majority of the human race. But, there have been sinless people even before Jesus Christ. In this sense, the grace of God sets a good example, which some choose to follow. Allison, Historical Theology, 346.

[9] Augustine, On the Grace of Christ, 1.45, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts et al., 1st ser., vol. 5, 232–33.

[10] Socinianism rejected any concept of original sin, total depravity, or total inability. “The fall of Adam, as it was but one act, could not have power to deprave his nature, much less that of his posterity.” Racovian Catechism, 5.10, trans. by Thomas Rees, reprint (Lexington, KY: American Theological Library Assoc. 1962), 326

[11] It was really a reaction to some of Augustine’s opposition to Pelagius. In which, some of his explanations were thought to be extreme…such as man’s complete inability to please God on his own. Allison, Historical Theology, 349. If the views were arranged chronologically, the Augustinian position would come between Pelagian and semi-Pelagian. But, the arrangement here is based on the degrees of corruption proposed by each view, from no corruption to total corruption.

[12] John Cassian, the Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon, 12, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts et al., 2nd ser., vol. 11 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 428.

[13] Cassian found tension between Augustinian and Pelagian doctrine. In looking at the conversion of the Apostles Matthew and Paul, he saw God working upon the will of men, turning them as they were intentionally pursuing sinful lives. But, in looking at the conversion of Zacchaeus, he saw God aiding a man who was intentionally pursuing Him. His conclusion was that the truth was somewhere between Augustine and Pelagius. He quotes Psalm 59:9, demonstrating God’s mercy “going before” the sinner. This introduces the concept of “prevenient grace,” which will be explained more within the Arminian view. Ibid., 8, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 2nd ser., vol. 11, 426.

[14] Ibid., 18, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 2nd ser., vol. 11, 434

[15] Allison, Historical Theology, 350

[16] Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 65–66.

[17] Cassian, The Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon, 11–18, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 2nd ser., vol. 11, 428–434.

One thought on “On the Depravity of Man (Part 2): Historical Positions: Pelagian & Semi-Pelagian

  1. Pingback: On the Depravity of Man: Part 3 – Abide in the Word

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