The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part IV: Soteriology

Part IV: A Pelagian Soteriology

Pelagius may be a famous heretic, but he is also one of the very best and most pious. Pelagius was a "good heretic," along with Arius. He had the best intentions, but his intentions got in the way of proper theology. He was focused on one particular issue to the exclusion of seeing how that one issue might affect the other areas of belief and practice. That being said, this is perhaps the most prevalent heresy among contemporary Christians. (NB: When I say "Pelagian," I generally mean a kind of semi-Pelagianism which was circulated in the 5th century by those trying to find a middle way between Augustine and Pelagius. However, elements in both camps—pelagianism and semipelagianism—are evident in the contours of contemporary evangelicalism.)

I shall now do my best to summarize the two positions in single sentences. Pelagianism is the teaching that each person, by an act of his or her own free will, can reach spiritual perfection through the moral imitation of the example of Christ. Semi-Pelagianism is the teaching that each person, by an act of his or her own free will, must approach God in faith and works, to which God will respond with divine grace for salvation. Of course, the two positions are much more complex than that, but the general idea should be clear. Pelagianism, broadly understood, is a doctrine that emphasizes the need for humans to do something for their salvation. When put in those terms, most evangelicals would be quick to deny that they are Pelagian in their soteriology. However, one only needs to ask how a person is saved to see that faith, for the average evangelical, is a human work that somehow merits God's grace and salvation.

Before addressing how evangelicalism ought to think about salvation, I wish to quote from the lectures given by Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary on the doctrine of election from last fall. Early in those lectures, he spoke about Augustine and Pelagius and the importance of the Pelagian controversy for future theological reflections on sin, grace, and predestination. I shall quote from the section in which he writes about Pelagius. McCormack states clearly, however, that the historical evidence is far from clear as to whether Pelagius the man actually held the views which Augustine ascribed to his name, so that "it is at least an open historical question as to whether Pelagius himself was a Pelagian."
What then were Pelagius' theological views? At the heart of Pelagius' concerns was the desire to set forth a view of sin and grace which would not act as a disincentive to moral effort. His starting-point was the proposition which we have already seen in Justin: viz. that God cannot justly demand of a human being anything which that human being is unable to give. Therefore, since God does indeed make demands, human beings must be capable of obeying God's laws. Every Christian is capable of living a holy life and if she does not, she alone is responsible before God for her failure. Pelagius did not exclude the possibility that some might even live completely sinless lives through the constancy of their efforts. His message was simple and, as Peter Brown says, "terrifying": "since perfection is possible for a man or woman, it is obligatory" [Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p.342]. This was true for all Christians and not just for a select few who [sic] God had appointed for the monastic way of life. ... The individual remains free to respond positively to instruction with regard to the negative consequences of his sinful pattern of living. Thus, education in the demands of the law is the God-given way to overcoming sin.

What then of grace? Is it unnecessary? Pelagius would have answered no. Grace is indeed necessary. But the grace in question is the grace of creation, not the grace of redemption (as in Augustine). "Grace," according to Pelagius, is the original endowment of human nature with reason and the revelation of the law so that men and women might know what God expects of them. "Grace" is also the forgiveness of sins which God grants to the one who genuinely repents of his sins - "genuineness" being defined here as the willingness to cease and desist from one's sinful habits. The role of Christ in bringing forgiveness was understood by Pelagius in terms of the good example provided by Christ's sinless life. Christ opened the way to forgiveness in the sense that He laid down the pattern of a virtuous life. We receive forgiveness through our imitation of His example.
McCormack goes on to discuss the semi-Pelagian movement, which arose very shortly after Pelagius left the scene. Augustine even called these theologians "erring brethren," rather than actual heretics. In my more circumspect moments, I would say the same of American evangelicals. Concerning semi-Pelagianism, McCormack says:
The center of this opposition was to be found in southern Gaul (France) in the persons of John Cassian (d. between 430 and 435) and Vincent of Lerins (d. sometime before 450). In modern literature, this new movement has been known as "semi-Pelagianism" (the term was first used in 1577 in the Lutheran Formula of Concord). But those involved in this movement would have preferred to define their position not in relation to Pelagius but rather in relation to Augustine. They were (in the phrase coined by James Bethune-Baker) "semi-Augustinians." Against Pelagius, they affirmed the doctrine of original sin. What they objected to in Augustine was the insistence upon the total bondage of the will, the irresistibility of grace, and the idea of predestination. According to John Cassian, original sin is like a disease which weakens the will but does not destroy it. Instruction in righteousness is by no means sufficient for salvation as Pelagius had taught; grace must be infused. But infused grace works with the will and indeed, the will (however weakened) remains capable of initiating a movements towards God. Cassian also held to the universality of God's saving intentions; double predestination was rejected. Predestination for the so-called "semi-Pelagians" was nothing more than God's predetermination to save those who merit salvation through their right use of grace. In other words, predestination is simply foreknowledge.
Of course, the question of predestination is not our concern here, nor are the natures of grace and original sin central to our discussion (although they would be important if we were going to address the issue systematically; for now we will settle for seeing the general outlines of what is at stake). What is important for us to consider is the way in which both forms of Pelagianism place a certain level of emphasis upon the individual human as the one who, in a sense, accomplishes salvation. In traditional Pelagianism, a person accomplishes salvation virtually on her own, so that eternal life is given to the one who works the hardest and achieves moral perfection. In semi-Pelagianism, the person accomplishes salvation by meeting God half-way, i.e., God makes salvation possible while we make salvation actual. Salvation is still by grace, but it is not by grace alone.

American evangelicalism is Pelagian for a number of reasons, but I think the central culprit is our own national and historical identity. The United States is a country of "doers," of those who "realize themselves" and try to "be all they can be." The American Way stresses that we must find our own path in life, we must be a true individual without anything holding us back, and we must make ourselves great, whether through fame or riches or personal legacy. The United States is a Pelagian nation which believes perfection is possible if you just try hard enough. Is it any surprise that some of this would seep into and contaminate the Christian faith? Is it any wonder that we have "health-and-wealth" pseudo-gospels that tell people money and riches indicate our spiritual standing with God? Is it any wonder that books like the Prayer of Jabez are the biggest pseudo-Christian bestsellers?

American evangelicalism, along with the semi-Pelagians, also rejects the bondage of the will and the irresistibility of grace, and correspondingly emphasizes the individual's free will to choose or reject God. The evangelical model of freedom is the pagan one: a choice between two roads, between right and wrong, good and evil, God and the devil. True freedom, as Barth makes clear, is obedience—it is freedom-for God and others, not freedom-from. Evangelicalism rejects double predestination (as it should), but then it moves the locus of salvation from God's divine decision to the individual human's decision for God. According to evangelicals, salvation is something we merit through our free choice of belief; we earn salvation through our act of faith.

In case the link between Pelagianism and evangelicalism is not clear enough, I wish to quote from The Semi-Pelagian Narrower Catechism, a satirical work of genius that makes some of the major problems in evangelicalism all too clear. (Wheaton College grads will want to check out Question 20.)

1. Q: What is the chief end of each individual Christian?
A: Each individual Christian's chief end is to get saved. This is the first and great commandment.

2. Q: And what is the second great commandment?
A: The second, which is like unto it, is to get as many others saved as he can.

3. Q: What one work is required of thee for thy salvation?
A: It is required of me for my salvation that I make a Decision for Christ, which meaneth to accept Him into my heart to be my personal lord'n'saviour

4. Q: At what time must thou perform this work?
A: I must perform this work at such time as I have reached the Age of Accountability.

5. Q: At what time wilt thou have reached this Age?
A: That is a trick question. In order to determine this time, my mind must needs be sharper than any two-edged sword, able to pierce even to the division of bone and marrow; for, alas, the Age of Accountability is different for each individual, and is thus unknowable.

6. Q: By what means is a Decision for Christ made?
A: A Decision for Christ is made, not according to His own purpose and grace which was given to me in Christ Jesus before the world began, but according to the exercise of my own Free Will in saying the Sinner's Prayer in my own words.

7. Q: If it be true then that man is responsible for this Decision, how then can God be sovereign?
A: He cannot be. God sovereignly chose not to be sovereign, and is therefore dependent upon me to come to Him for salvation. He standeth outside the door of my heart, forlornly knocking, until such time as I Decide to let Him in.

8. Q: How then can we make such a Decision, seeing that the Scripture saith, we are dead in our trespasses and sins?
A: By this the Scripture meaneth, not that we are dead, but only that we are sick or injured in them.

9. Q: What is the assurance of thy salvation?
A: The assurance of thy salvation is, that I know the date on which I prayed the Sinner's Prayer, and have duly written this date on an official Decision card.

15. Q: What witness aid hath been given us as a technique by which we may win souls?
A: The tract known commonly as the Four Spiritual Laws, is the chief aid whereby we may win souls.

16. Q: What doth this tract principally teach?
A: The Four Spiritual Laws principally teach, that God's entire plan for history and the universe centereth on me, and that I am powerful enough to thwart His divine purpose if I refuse to let Him pursue His Wonderful Plan for my life.

17. Q: What supplementary technique is given by which we may win souls?
A: The technique of giving our own Personal Testimony, in the which we must always be ready to give an answer concerning the years we spent in vanity and pride, and the wretched vices in which we wallowed all our lives until the day we got saved.

23. Q: What is sanctification?
A: Sanctification is the work of my free Will, whereby I am renewed by having my Daily Quiet Time.

I would just quote the entire "catechism," because there are so many great questions-answers (including 25, 28, 31, 32, 33, 35, 38, 39). The ones quoted above, however, make one very clear point: evangelicalism practices a salvation by works, or perhaps more accurately, salvation by a work—the faithful decision for Christ. American evangelicalism is thus propagating a great heresy, that Jesus Christ did not accomplish salvation for us but that we must realize our own salvation. This heresy is most clear in the doctrine of the atonement, in which Jesus makes salvation possible for all people, but only individuals can actualize this salvation. Reconciliation is made available to all (contra double predestination), but God waits for each individual to pray to receive Jesus. Salvation is mostly in our own hands. We have to meet God half-way, according to a semi-Pelagian evangelicalism. "God helps those who help themselves" is the motto of the moralistic evangelical with good intentions. All of this is heretical, and yet it dominates the literature produced by American Christians. We need to make a drastic change.

Solution: I will address the nature of faith in close detail soon, but suffice it to say that faith cannot be viewed as a human work which merits salvation. We cannot say that we are saved by our faith. Such a view is heretical because it locates the source of our salvation in ourselves, in our own decision for God. Faith must rather be viewed as the affirmation of what is already true about us in Jesus Christ. Faith is not an act of self-realization, but an act of self-renunciation. Faith renounces the attempt to make something of ourselves; faith hands over all things to God as the source of life and all being. Faith recognizes that our identity is found in God, not in ourselves. Faith affirms that in Christ we are already new creatures. As McCormack says in that same lecture, commenting on Augustine's position (emphasis added):
Faith is not simply a power proper to human nature as created which - however weakened - was still sufficent to obtain salvation through its reception and use of the gifts of grace. Faith does not precede grace; rather, grace precedes faith.
What must we do? We must preach more effectively the gospel of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, by the word alone, and by faith alone. Salvation, identity, new personhood are all found in God alone (solus Deus). We must die to ourselves before we can find ourselves. But "dying to ourselves" is not a human act to merit salvation; it is rather the recognition that all that we are is found outside of ourselves in God. When we die to ourselves in faith, we allow God to say No to every moral or immoral act in our lives. But we also allow God to say Yes to us just as we are—not because of anything in us, but because of Jesus Christ alone.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. ... All this is from God reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 18-19)


Patrik said…
Note: "Semi-pelagianism" is not a heresy. It fits well within what is acceptable as orthodox, indeed, it is pretty much the accepted faith of the catholic Church, and pretty close to the belief in the Eastern Churches.
Shane said…
that's what i had thought too, but actually, semi-pelagianism was officially condemned as heretical by the second council of orange.
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks, Shane. I was just going to say the same thing myself. Indeed, it is heretical, though Patrik is right that semi-Pelagianism is quite close to what most churches teach. I think the reasons for this are not hard to parse out, namely, the human temptation to turn a faith into a religion.
David Wilkerson said…
Yes but what authority does the Second Council of Orange have over anyone but perhaps those in France in the 6th century? Didn't it affirm something like semi-Augustinianism too? I'm with Patrik, I think it's acceptable. But I'm not under the Lutheran/Reformed umbrella. Give me that judgement according to deeds stuff. Call it "religion" or not.
kim fabricius said…
What's the old saying - Calvinists on their knees but Pelagians (Armenians) in the pulpit? Actually semi-Pelagians on their knees: it's always God "help" us to do this, and God and "help" us to do that. The language is, perhaps, unavoidable, but Colin Gunton once made a comment to me about the semi-pelagian nature of so much of our prayer when we were on a committee together revising the book of serevices of the URC.

Have you mentioned conservative evangelicalism's Manichaeism?
Manichaeism plus Pelagianism equals "the war on terror to rid the world of evil". It is so reassuring to know that there is a born-again Christian in the White House!
D.W. Congdon said…
I am quite surprised that people seem comfortable with semi-Pelagianism. Would someone care to show me from a catechism or canon law where a kind of cooperation between God and humanity is made explicit?

I will not hide the fact that when it comes to human activity, I am Lutheran. I believe that humans must be passive before the God who accomplishes all things on our behalf. God of course commands us to act, but God deprives these acts of any and all eternal significance. We no longer have control over our destiny; God took that upon Godself on the cross.

To the extent that any church or denomination believes that we have to achieve something for our salvation, I believe I can safely assert that they are propagating a heresy.
D.W. Congdon said…
Kim, I plan on addressing the Gnosticism/Manichaeism of evangelicalism when I address eschatology.
joshua said…
A few questions,
1) kim, why you equate armenianism and semi-pelagianism?
2) d.w., in your comment on being lutheran, why do you construe human and divine action as being similar? in other words your account seems to place human and divine agency on the same plane of being. the brillance of augustine was that he was capable of coherently stating that all human action is human action and that all good human action (which still stems from the will and desires of humans as such) also demands God's work. there is no human passivity in this such that i stand back and accept. maybe this is my reformed compatablist view coming through, but i think you are missing something in that account. try von balthasar as well in his work on human and divine agency in vol ii of theo-drama. or even more recently kathy tanner has saught to restate this view. she eloquently claims that human and divine agency are non-competitive. it is not a zero-sum game. your comments seem to apply that it is. for me the solution to this problem is a renewed understanding of the compatablist position and a better understanding of God's transcendence (understood not in the deist way as far off, but in the sense of Augustine that God is not bound by cateogries of human or created reality and thus is free). maybe this is too much augustine through reformed lense, but...
Joshua said…
oh yeah, did you get the jungel essay i sent you?
D.W. Congdon said…

Thanks for the comment. I am sorry if it seems like I made human and divine action competitive. Indeed, I agree with you that the two are on radically different levels. There is a kind of "infinite qualitative difference" between divine action and human action.

BUT ... it is out of that consideration that I make the following claim: only divine action saves humanity; human action, at best, only witnesses to divine action.

To live under law is to think that our actions can in any way justify us. To live under grace is to realize that coram Deo (before God) we must be passive, but that coram mundo we are called to be active agents of reconciliation -- working alongside (and sometimes against) the true Agent, the Holy Spirit. In the end, of course, our actions are all relative, while God's actions are eternal and lasting.

David, I truly fear the idea of a judgment according to our works. This cannot be the gospel, regardless of what support you might find for such a position.
Shane said…
i think you've neglected the most important evangelical heresy, i.e. the rejection of ecclesiastical authority. This is the gaping wound from which the other heresies seem to me to flow.
D.W. Congdon said…

Yes, I got the article, and THANK YOU. It's a great article (as usual), and I hope to comment on it soon. I'll try to update the Juengel biblography soon as well.