Pelagianism: “Humanity’s not all that bad.”

by K.W. Leslie, 04 October

When Christians imagine we’re good enough for heaven.

PELAGIAN pə'leɪ.dʒi.ən adjective. Denies the Christian doctrines of original sin and total depravity: Believes humans are inherently good, able to make unselfish choices, and can be worthy of heaven on our own merits.
SEMI-PELAGIAN sɛm.aɪ.pə'leɪ.dʒi.ən adjective. A Pelagian whom we kinda like.

Every once in a while somebody, usually a theology nerd like me, is gonna fling around the terms Pelagian and semi-Pelagian. Hopefully they know what they’re talking about. Many don’t, and are just using those words to mean heretic. ’Cause in the year 431, the Council of Ephesus declared Pelagianism to be heresy—so whether critics understand Pelagianism, councils, or heresy, what they’re really trying to say is the person’s wrong, and any label will do.

So let’s back up a bunch. A Pelagian, like I said in the definition, believes humans are inherently good. Children are born innocent, and if nothing upends that natural innocence, stay good and wholesome and benevolent. They grow up to be good people. Good enough for heaven.

It’s what pagans believe. Optimistic pagans, anyway; there are a lot of cynics who think humanity totally deserves hellfire. But a lot of us like to think the best of people, and give ’em the benefit of the doubt. Myself included. I’m not unrealistic: I know evil people, and I know even good people screw up, or have times when they act selfishly or deceptively. When they do so, it doesn’t blindside me. But just about everyone believes in karma, the idea our actions have repercussions in the universe and on our afterlife. So many people—unless they’ve quit trying in despair—are usually trying to be good. Or good enough. Or settling for explanations why they’re kinda good enough.

But the scriptures teach otherwise. The first humans were created good, but sinned. They passed down that sinful, self-centered nature to their descendants, us:

Romans 5.12 KWL
This is why it’s like sin enters the world through one man; and through sin, death;
and therefore death comes to every human—hence everyone sins.

Therefore humanity is inherently selfish and sinful. It’s why we need Jesus! We can’t save ourselves, can’t earn salvation, can’t accept God’s love, can’t follow God’s laws, without his help. We gotta depend on grace. Which God provides in abundance, so no sweat.

But if you grew up believing people are inherently good, the idea we’re inherently not is gonna bug you. Humans don’t like to think we’re corrupt or flawed; we like to imagine we’re good! And if it helps to imagine everybody else is good deep down too… well then we will. Even though we’ve tons of evidence of human depravity. We’ll just keep insisting evil is the exception. Something humanity can evolve past.

Hence Pelagianism. Pelagius (390ish–418) was a Rome-educated British monk. He was hardly the first guy to float the idea, but it nonetheless gets named for him: A Pelagian believes humans aren’t inherently sinful. We’re good. So be good!

Bear in mind Pelagius was dealing with a lot of slacker Christians. Fellow Christians and fellow monks would blame our sins on our sinful nature. (Still do.) They’d insist we can’t be good; we’re just too corrupt. We can’t help but sin. And if this is the case… why try? Why make the effort to do better, to be better, to be like Jesus, when our very nature rebels against the idea? Best to just give up, stay the same ol’ sinner, and depend on cheap grace.

Pelagius hated this idea. I hate this idea. Any reasonable Christian should. It’s not biblical!

Romans 6.1-2 KWL
1 So what are we saying?—“Continue to sin, for there’s plenty of grace”?
2 Never gonna happen. We died to sin. How could we live in it?

But Pelagius’s correction went too far: He rejected the ideas of human depravity, and of Adam and Eve’s original sin affecting humanity. He insisted anyone can stop sinning if we just make the effort. That’s what he taught his monks, and that’s what his monks taught Christendom. Particularly Celestius of Rome, Pelagius’s disciple.

Pagan thinking—whether ancient or current.

I mentioned how pagans bring their attitudes into Christianity with ’em, and sometimes teach that instead of the scriptures. It’s not a new phenomenon at all; it’s always been the case.

Plato of Athens (427–347BC) believed the physical world was created, not by God, but some other supernatural being, which he called the δημιουργός/dimiurgós, “maker.” This maker didn’t make the universe ex nihilo/“out of nothing,” but from whatever materials were there… the rubble or raw materials of the universe. Or worse. In pagan myths, first the universe existed, then gods were born, then they fought over it and won, then shaped it to suit them. In some of those myths, the gods took their defeated foe and literally made the world out of that enemy’s corpse. So, really corrupt material. Which, Plato figured, makes us all corrupt. That is, till we die and become pure spirit. Meanwhile we gotta settle for being corrupt… and evil. And in Pelagius’s day, that’s what Plato’s then-current fans, the neo-Platonists, were teaching: Shun the material world as much as possible, and maybe you’ll be better than average.

Then there’s Mani of Persia. (216–274) He was an Iranian prophet who claimed he was Jesus’s reincarnation. Mani believed humans are beings of light, trapped in bodies of matter. Like the neo-Platonists, he felt matter was bad, spirit was good, and until our spirits escape our bodies, we’re gonna be bad. Unlike the neo-Platonists, Mani and his Manichees man.ə'kiz figured we couldn’t do anything to mitigate sin, so just sit back and let God do all the work; why fight sin when you’re inherently corrupt?

These were really popular philosophies. (Augustine of Hippo actually used to be a member of both camps!) And Pelagius felt the idea of original sin sounded way too much like both of ’em. So he rejected the idea altogether; bathwater and baby. Didn’t God create us—not some other guy? And when he created us, didn’t he declare us good? Ge 1.31 So to Pelagius, claiming we’re not good, but evil, seemed to violate the bible. And to claim we don’t have to even try to be good, struck Pelagius as a convenient Manichee excuse to sin our brains out. The idea our free will doesn’t matter, horrified him.

First, then, you ought to measure the good of human nature by reference to its creator. I mean God, of course: If it is he who, as report goes, has made all the works of and within the world good, exceeding good, how much more excellent do you suppose that he has made man himself, on whose account he has clearly made everything else? And before actually making man, he determines to fashion him in his own image and likeness and shows what kind of creature he intends to make him. […] By means of his intelligence and mental vigor, in which he surpassed the other animals, man alone was able to recognize the maker of all things, and to serve God by using those same faculties which enabled him to hold sway over the rest. Moreover, the Lord of Justice wished man to be free to act and not under compulsion; it was for this reason that “he left him free to make his own decisions” Si 15.14 NRSV and set before him life and death, good and evil, and he shall be given whatever pleases him. Hence we read in the book Deuteronomy also: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you may live.” Dt 30.19

Demetrius 2.2; B.R. Rees, Pelagius: Life and Letters 37-38

Remember, Pelagius was training monks to live together as good Christians, and sometimes dealt with newbies who brought some of Plato or Mani’s fatalism with them: “I can’t help it,” or “I was born this way.” He wasn’t having any of that. Nor should he have. He absolutely wouldn’t accept any idea that we’re destined to sin. He rejected any philosophy which blamed sin on anything but ourselves.

God created us in his image, Ge 1.27 and good. Part of God’s image is free will: We have the ability to choose good or evil, life or death, and God commands us to choose life. Dt 30.19 Why command any such thing if we can’t choose anything but death? Makes no sense. So, Pelagius concluded, those who preach humans are inherently sinful are wrong. Trying to slip neo-Platonism and Manichaeism into Christianity. Unacceptable.

And Pelagians nowadays think the same thing. Anyone claiming they can’t help but be evil, has embraced some form of nihilism, fatalism, or negative thinking. Or been tricked by the devil into giving up, giving in to temptation, and blaming external forces for our own bad behavior. Also unacceptable.

“Because I’ve known good pagans. So we aren’t all bad.”

You have, I hope, known some good people in your life. Including good pagans. Because there are such creatures as good pagans: People who try to be selfless, generous, kind, patient, and otherwise exhibit fruit of the Spirit even though they don’t yet have the Holy Spirit. Somehow they learned this stuff regardless! (Probably from someone who does have the Spirit, or they’re following the Spirit unaware, would be my guess.)

And whenever people try to defend the idea that humans are inherently good, that’s who they point to. Look, there are good pagans! How are they “totally depraved”?

I’ve known a few pessimistic Christians who insist these good pagans aren’t really good; that their selfless acts are really selfish, for they’re trying to rack up good karma. I think they’re missing the point: Anybody can learn to resist our inherent selfishness. Everybody should learn to live that way. But don’t delude yourself into thinking we’re not inherently selfish. Anybody who’s experienced a willful toddler, or a self-absorbed 3-year-old, should know better.

Pelagius knew good pagans too! But he raised teenage and adult monks, not 3-year-olds. So he never really got to see that inherent selfishness come out.

For how many of the pagan philosophers have we heard and read and even seen for ourselves to be chaste, tolerant, temperate, generous, abstinent and kindly, rejecters of the world’s honors as well as its delights, lovers of justice no less than knowledge? Whence, I ask you, do these good qualities pleasing to God come to men who are strangers to him? Whence can these good qualities come to them, unless it be from the good of nature? Demetrias 3.3

Well like I said, those good qualities ultimately come from the Holy Spirit, directly or not. Not human nature.

Christians try to be good because we love God, and are trying to follow Jesus. But let’s be honest: A lot of us also try to be good because we figure we’ll benefit by it. Society functions smoother. People like good people. We feel better about ourselves—more noble, more useful. Our consciences, conditioned by our parents, won’t bug us so much. Other people’s consciences, conditioned by their parents, won’t object to us so much. We’ll earn good karma.

Problem is, if we’re trying to be good for any other reason but love, our motives are gonna distort things a little. We’re gonna have a lot of selfishness mixed in with our “goodness”—and invent all sorts of excuses and explanations for why our not-so-good behavior is good enough. Or we’ll try to justify any evil we do on the grounds it’s ultimately for good, or done out of love. Or we’ll redefine goodness and love so it suits us better. Our “goodness” will be rotten at its core. It won’t be as fruitful as we imagine.

And when we examine “good people” closely enough—pagans and Christians alike!—too often that’s what we find. People who only look good. Hypocrites. It’s disappointing; it’s why people regularly warn us to never meet our heroes, for we won’t like what we see, and better to live with delusion than disillusionment. (I don’t agree, but whatever.)

Semi-Pelagianism and “traditionalism”: Really Pelagianism.

When Christians are Pelagian, we tend to call it “semi-Pelagian.” It’s called “semi-” because such Christians insist they’re not trying to earn heaven by being good; they’re not trying to do an end-run around Jesus. (Seriously, what self-described Christian would do such a thing?) Nobody gets into God’s kingdom without King Jesus’s say-so. So since we take the initiative to be good, but Jesus still has to rubber-stamp things, it‘s “semi-Pelagian.”

To which I point out: No Pelagian, including Pelagius, presumed they’d march into God’s kingdom without Jesus’s approval. They may not imagine he’d ever shut them out, but they do recognize he’s the one with the keys to the gate.

Hence semi-Pelagianism is simply Pelagianism. Not Pelagianism lite; it’s full-on Pelagianism. Teaches the very same things Pelagius did. I tend to say “semi-Pelagian” is what we call the nice Pelagians; the Pelagians we like, get along with, and even worship with. People assume I’m kidding. Not really. It may be funny, but it’s entirely honest. They’re “semi-” nothing.

Among certain Baptists, Pelagianism goes by the term traditionalism. It’s what they believe Baptists have always traditionally believed, and sometimes claim all Christians have traditionally believed. I don’t know that it’s true to say of the Baptists. The founders of the Baptist movement, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, were Puritans who didn’t believe in limited atonement, but otherwise held many Calvinist beliefs. If they’re thinking of the American founders, Roger Williams and John Clarke, same deal.

Traditionalists don’t wanna be Calvinist, ’cause that worldview has serious problems. And they’re not willing to embrace the Arminian view, which also believes in human depravity, same as Calvinists. So they’ve tried to carve out a middle way… which turns out Pelagian. Goes like yea:

  • Because of Adam, humans are inclined towards sin. And yeah, everybody sins.
  • But this doesn’t mean humans are born sinful, nor that our selfish nature has warped us so bad our every freewill choice is selfish, and typically sinful.
  • No sinner can save themselves by their own effort. We still gotta turn to Jesus to be saved.

Basically they figure humans have it in us to be good if we tried. And we likewise have it in us to turn to Jesus and be saved if we tried. We don’t need the Holy Spirit to draw us first, or offer us grace first, or do anything first. We can initiate our relationship with God on our own. So, y’know, semi-Pelagianism. In other words, Pelagianism.

Of course they insist they’re not Pelagian, ’cause don’t Pelagians believe they save themselves? And they believe Jesus does all the saving. So, they figure, they’re orthodox. Not even semi-Pelagian; that’s just the false accusation of negative people who wanna declare humanity evil and damned, and make God look better by comparison. (And to be fair, many dark Christians are in the bad habit of doing exactly that: Lifting Jesus high by putting humanity—whom he loves—down.)

But Pelagianism isn’t defined as “people who think they can save themselves.” It’s people who think humans are inherently good. Inclined towards sin, but still inherently good. The problem with this idea—the reason it got declared a heresy—is because if we are inherently good, and can make freewill choices to be nothing but good, it means there’s a path to salvation that doesn’t go through Jesus. It may be extremely unlikely, but it’s right there… tempting people to try it instead.

And if a path to salvation which doesn’t go through Jesus, however unlikely, actually exists, it means Jesus’s self-sacrifice was wholly unnecessary. He didn’t have to die. But he did die—for nothing. There’s the problem. That’s the heresy.

Dealing with Pelagians.

When you look up Pelagianism, naturally you find lots of Christians condemning it. And Pelagius—as wicked, twisted, deceptive, and all sorts of things. Which is slander. By most contemporary accounts, Pelagius was a good man and a devoted follower of Jesus. Heresy only means you’re wrong, not evil. And it doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to hell; we’re saved by grace, not doctrine.

You’ll also find a lot of incorrect ideas about what Pelagius taught. Some of the misinformation comes from people who just wanna bash heretics, and Pelagians in particular. Some of it comes from Pelagians who either wanna claim Pelagius wasn’t so bad, or they’re not really as hardcore as Pelagius was.

I find several sources who claim Pelagius was specifically fighting Augustine. True, Augustine used to be both a neo-Platonist and Manichee before he came to Jesus—and Pelagius feared both these religions had corrupted Christianity. But these guys weren’t mortal enemies. They were Christian brothers with a serious disagreement. Augustine never mentioned Pelagius by name in his books: His concern was with the bad theology, not the man.

And that’s how we have to behave. Pelagians are wrong. Not damned.

There have always been Pelagians mixed into Christianity: Christians who believe humans are basically good, and could be good on our own if we tried. But we correct them, not condemn them. We reject their wrong ideas, not cast them into outer darkness. We don’t let ’em teach, ’cause they’ll teach wrong; and if they insist upon teaching, or try to gather disciples, then we have something to worry about. But generally Pelagians need guidance, not condemnation. Love, not rage.