Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is Reformed Theology Pelagian?

Perry Robinson in his recent blog post on Energetic Procession has argued that Classical Reformed Protestant theology is inherently Pelagian.

Perry’s blog post can be found here.

Perry of course grants that there are aspects of Reformed theology that are not Pelagian, but Perry charges that the Reformed conception of anthropology and the covenant of works are Pelagian. In this blog post I will argue that the Reformed conception of man and the covenant of works pre-fall are not Pelagian and that the Catholic and Eastern view of man pre-fall is unreasonable.

First let us look at some quotes where Perry charges that the Reformed are Pelagian, he writes:

Adam was then perpetually under a “covenant of works” since he intrinsically possessed the requisite power to fulfill it. This is why incidentally the Reformed doctrine of the Covenant of Works is essentially Pelagian.

And again he writes:

And historically, the neo-semi-pelagian anthropology of the Ockhamist school trickled down on this point to the Reformers. The obvious irony is that the Protestant protestation against Pelagianism is directly applicable to their own theological system. Providing as a foundation for the Pelagian scheme an Augustinian soteriological doctrine of divine pre-emption doesn’t make the fundamental outlook any less Pelagian.

The standard definition of Pelagianism is this:

A concept proposed by Pelagius (circa 356 to circa 418) who denied the existence of original sin inherited from Adam. He taught that a soul created by god cannot inheret sin from an ancestor. Thus humans are born morally neutral. They can fall into habits of sin but can overcome sin through mental effort. He promoted adult baptism in place of infant baptism. His beliefs were declared heretical by the Christian movement.

The fundamental mistake that Perry Robinson is making here according to R. Scott Clark in his class lectures on Reformed Scholasticism is that the whole discussion of Pelagianism with respect to grace has to do with man after the fall. Perry is illegitimately expanding the definition of Pelagianism.

This is obvious when one reads the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Errors of Pelagianism:

1) Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.
2) Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
3) Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
4) The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.
5) The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
6) Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.
On account of these doctrines, which clearly contain the quintessence of Pelagianism, Caelestius was summoned to appear before a synod at Carthage (411); but he refused to retract them, alleging that the inheritance of Adam's sin was an open question and hence its denial was no heresy.

Thus, we see that the Reformed accept neither of 1 through 6 because the whole discussion of Pelagianism with respect to grace is post-fall and not pre-fall.

However, when Perry tries to argue that the Reformed share similar views to Pelagius on human nature pre-fall, he specifically argues that we believe like Pelagius that human nature pre-fall is intrinsically naturally righteous and able to fulfill the commands of God’s covenant, the covenant of works that is. Perry is right about this, but this does not make us Pelagian, that just means that we share a view with Pelagius. I am sure Perry shares views with Pelagius as well, like he has two arms and that he is a male, but this does not make Perry a Pelagian. If he tries to argue that this view of human nature leads one to Pelagianism then he is wrong because the Reformed are obviously not soteriologically Pelagian. If he tries to argue that if one shares a view with Pelagius that is not condemned as a Heresy by a council but that the Orthodox do not share, then he is begging the question because he is assuming in the argument that the Reformed are Heretics and that the Orthodox position is not (which is what the post was intending to prove, that the Reformed are Heretical on this point).

But it is worse than this because the Catholic and Orthodox position on human nature pre-fall is actually unbiblical and philosophically flawed.

The author of Genesis says that all of God’s creation is good:

Genesis 1:31 "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”

If everything that God created is good then the Reformed are right to think that human nature is good in the pre-fall circumstances.

But there are other philosophical problems with the non-Reformed position. Why would God create human nature defective so that it would need grace? If God is the greatest possible being then it seems that it would be better for him to create human nature intrinsically good rather than not. Thus, it seems that the non-Protestant position on this is unreasonable and that Perry's arguments have failed because he is using an incorrect definition of Pelagianism.

Finally, If anyone is Pelagian in this whole mess then it is Perry, who is a Eastern Orthodox. This is because Eastern Orthodox reject the imputation of Adams sin to us. In short, they reject original guilt just like Pelagius. Catholics are also Pelagian because they reject sufficient grace just like Pelagius. If anyone is not Pelagian it are those who hold to the Classical Reformed Protestant position which accepts the imputation of Adams sin to us and sufficient grace.

Works Cited:




  1. Quote: "The fundamental mistake that Perry Robinson is making here according to R. Scott Clark in his class lectures on Reformed Scholasticism is that the whole discussion of Pelagianism has to do with man after the fall. Perry is illegitimately expanding the definition of Pelagianism. "

    Nick: R. Scott Clark doesn't know/understand key theological points like the nature/grace distinction. He is VERY misinformed to suggest this Pelagianism, especially as the Scholastics taught agaist it, was ONLY a POST-Fall issue. It very much dealt with PRE-Fall as well.

    St Pius V (around the time of the Reformers) condemned a Catholic guy named Baius who had succumb to Calvinist errors regarding nature and grace. Pius V condemned many of Baius' teachings on Pelagian grounds, for example:

    -12. The opinion of Pelagius is: A good work performed without the grace of adoption, is not meritorious of the heavenly kingdom.

    -17. They are in agreement with Pelagius who say that it is necessary for reason of merit, that man through the grace of adoption be lifted up to a deified state.

    -21. The sublimation and exaltation of human nature in participation with the divine nature has been due to the integrity of the first condition, and hence must be called natural, and not supernatural.

    -23. Absurd is the opinion of those who say that man from the beginning, by a certain supernatural and gratuitous gift, was raised above the condition of his nature, so that by faith, hope, and charity he cherished God supernaturally.

    -24. By vain and idle men, in keeping with the folly of philosophers, is the opinion devised which must be referred to Pelagianism, that man was so constituted from the beginning that through gifts added upon nature by the bounty of the Creator he was raised and adopted into the sonship of God.

    -26. The integrity of the first creation was not the undeserved exaltation of human nature, but its natural condition.

    The above propositions of Baius were CONDEMNED by the Catholic Church, so don't misread them. Notice how it is talking about Pelagianism in regards to man's original state, the problem is Baius had it backwards and was applying the name Pelagianism to what was in fact not Pelagianism but Catholicism and at the same time accepting what was in fact Pelagianism/Protestantism as far as nature/grace goes.

    The most significant problem here is that the Protestant side - for the most part (eg R. Scott Clark) - is not trained to think along these lines, so a lot of what Perry (Eastern Orthodox) and especially Catholic (esp Scholastics) say don't mean much but are in fact critical concepts to realize.

    Quote: Why would God create human nature defective so that it would need grace?

    Nick: This is a grave misunderstanding. It is not that Adam was created "defective," it is a mater of 'natural' versus 'supernatural' order. Man is an adopted child of God by grace, by the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not by nature because nature is purely created. Man by nature was created in full integrity, but apart from Divine Gifts he is not deified and thus not Adopted.

    The problem with Protestantism is that when man fell, he had nothing to fall from, thus human nature itself became corrupted in the sense of an apple turning rotten. For Catholicism, the "fall" was fundamentally characterized by the loss of divine grace, leaving him in a natural (but also weakened) rather than Deified/Adopted state.

  2. Hello Nick,

    Thanks for your comments. The evidence you gave for context for pelagian controversy being sufficiently widen to include Reformed theology was someone rejecting a Roman Catholic Dogma and a Pope expanding the definition of Pelagian to call that person a heretic on the basis that he is Pelagian, the very thing that Perry Robinson is trying to do. As you yourself have noted this occurred at the time of the Reformation. Thus, redefinitions of pelagianism 1000 years after the fact do not act as a defeater for my case here. I am saying the context of pelgianism when the Hersey first developed with Pelagius would not include Reformed theology. Now if some Pope wanted to redefine pelagianism to mean that if you believe that you have 2 hands and that you are a man then you must be a pelagian, but do not expect people who use reason and logic and are not bound by the Papacy to actually believe that is what pelagianism means.

    As for my use of the word defective I was simply using it synonymously with weakened, which is hardly a good thing.

    God Bless,


  3. Just a note, Pelagianism was not redefined 1000 years later, only that it was condemned in the various forms it appeared. Sometimes there is a slightly different spin on old heresies that need to be condemned, but are in essence the same heresy.

    God Bless,

  4. Nick,

    I understand what you are saying. But the difficulty have with this is what you would call "various forms" I would called a entirely new or stretched definition that was not intended from the beginning. Saying that human nature is defective in the sense that it essentially by itself cannot have a right relationship with God is fundamentally different than if human nature is essentially good but humans bring in sin to their natures, it is so different that one can hardly think that this is the same form.

    But thanks for your thoughts and your time.

    God Bless,


  5. Not quite, because Pelagianism and Calvinism conflate nature and grace. The main difference is that Pelagianism saw nothing to fall from, hence the idea that man is not fallen, where as Calvinism saw the "falling from" as nature itself going corrupt. They both start from the same erroneous foundation, but they took that in two different directions. The two errors come from the same starting premise that is incorrect.

  6. Hello,

    Actually in Reformed Theology nature and grace are not the same thing at all because there is something true of nature which is not true of grace. Grace refreshes and redeems nature but nature does not refresh and redeem nature. Thus, they are distinct in Reformed thought. But again you are ignoring the fine distinctions I gave in the post: Just because we share similar views on with Pelagius that does not make us Pelagian. Pelagianism has a distinct definition and a context for that definition, if there were any similarities between a view and some other position that Pelagius held to the relation would just be accidental. But by Perry's own standard he is Pelagian because he rejects original guilt like Pelagius and Catholics/Orthodox reject sufficient grace like Pelagius. The people who are least Pelagian are the Reformed in this whole mess. If the Reformed start out with the same presuppositions as Pelagius (which I deny) then we obviously are not lead to the same conclusions unless a Catholic or Orthodox can show this sort of connection.

    God Bless,


  7. Nathanael,

    Recent Covenant Seminary graduate Barrett Turner just argued that the WCF is Pelagian in this same respect. See here:

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

  8. Hello Bryan,

    Thank you for your suggestion Bryan. I read Barrett's post. I did not find it entirely convincing because it did not deal with 1)the philosophical and biblical problems that I had above and 2) it did not argue that historically that the term "Pelagianism" includes the pre-fall state. Now it is true that pelagius believed that there was no grace prior to fall, but pelagius also believed that God existed and that he had hands, but we would never call God and hand believers pelagians by virtue of the fact that they happen to share those two beliefs with pelagius. Thank you for your time.

    God Bless,


  9. Usually heresies come in pairs: think of Nestorianism and Monophysism: they were diametrically opposed to one another, yet shared the same philosophical foundation (which is not embraced by Chalcedonian Churches): namely that persons are instances of natures (hence the former believed that since Christ has two natures then he must of necessity have two persons, and the later thought that since He is one person, He must of necessity have one nature)

    The same holds true for Pelagius and Augustine. (Or for idolaters and iconoclasts). Etc.