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R C Sproull yankeerev_wordpress_comBy the time Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing the Ninety-five Theses on the church door of Wittenburg, he had already begun distributing small pamphlets — tracts — about the downfall of the Church.

He compared the corrupt Church of his day to Babylon. Not only were the official representatives of Christ’s Bride collecting money for indulgences as repentance for sin, they were also denying the sacred, inspired truth of Holy Scripture.

The Catholic Church will readily agree to that post-Vatican II. I was taught of the Church’s errors in RE (Religious Education) class in the 1970s. Yet, what appears to linger there is the synergistic notion that we must work for our salvation. God’s grace is insufficient. In fact, we must merit it.

Things are not so different in certain Protestant denominations, especially in some — not all — Evangelical and mainstream Non-Conformist (e.g. Wesleyan, Baptist) congregations.

A works-based salvation is, at best, semi-Pelagian. At worst, it is full-on Pelagianism, which is a heresy. Pelagianism denies Original Sin and says that man is basically good. Semi-Pelagianism acknowledges Original Sin but says that man must work for his conversion, his rebirth in Christ or his ultimate salvation. Both of these dangerous beliefs are devoid of Scriptural truth and divine grace, which God the Father gives us in our Christian walk.

The Reformed theologian Dr R C Sproul — a monergist — deplores the Church’s departure from monergism. Monergism, involving God as the author of our spiritual regeneration and ultimate salvation, espouses the doctrine of grace — completely unmerited on our part but mercifully granted by our Father in heaven nonetheless.

The Covenant Presbyterian Church, a member of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) in Bakersfield, California, has posted several helpful articles and essays for their congregation as well as for other Christians who might wonder if they are truly saved. Worrying about one’s personal salvation can cause many late nights, much soul-searching and years of anguish.

Sproul’s article which sheds light on monergism, synergism, grace, error and heresy is called ‘The Pelagian Captivity of the Church’. Excerpts follow with page references to the PDF.

Sproul wonders what would happen if Luther were to see the state of Protestantism today (p. 1):

Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church.

Luther, Sproul tells us, believed in the doctrine of grace as revealed in the Bible (emphases mine):

Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage Of the Will. When we look at the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria, sola gratia Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

Luther was not alone. Calvin, Zwingli and other early Reformers agreed on

the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace …

In other words, our faith in Christ is

the free gift of a sovereign God.

Pelagius was a British monk. He lived in the 5th century AD, as did his rival, St Augustine of Hippo (Egypt). Although these were dark and primitive times, Church councils covering Europe and North Africa were ongoing. Pelagius objected to Augustine’s belief in a sovereign God.

Pelagius maintained that, although Adam and Eve sinned, future generations were spared inheriting that sin. This viewpoint goes against Scripture and Christianity, both of which point to our inherent and ongoing depravity because we actually have a proclivity to sin, which we received from Adam and Eve. As St Augustine believed, this state (p. 2), leaves us in

a sinful, fallen condition.

As such, we are able to achieve nothing good or godly on our own. We must rely on God’s grace, the workings of the Holy Spirit and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins.

Yet, Pelagius insisted that Adam and Eve’s sin was not passed down to us and that any grace we inherited ‘facilitates’ righteousness to us. Sproul said that Pelagius meant that whilst divine grace helps mankind, mankind doesn’t actually need it. In fact, he said that people could live perfect lives under their own willpower, with no divine grace necessary (p. 3).

The Church condemned Pelagianism as a heresy at the Council of Orange in the 5th century, later at the Council of Carthage and, once more, much later, in the 16th century at the Council of Trent (p. 3).

However, despite Church theologians declaring Pelagianism a heresy, the appeal of man’s ‘island of righteousness’ — perhaps ‘divine spark’ — refused to fade away. Hence the rise of semi-Pelagianism: we need God’s grace but we are also capable of accepting or rejecting it.

Sproul writes:

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and what Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God.  If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

Now to the present day. Many Evangelical — mostly independent, but sometimes associated — churches around the world feature a believer’s testimony and an altar call. The unconverted in the congregation can seemingly ‘choose’ to ‘accept’ Christ as Saviour and Lord. These are also features of Holiness churches of the Wesleyan tradition. Essentially, even if the preachers talk about sin, they say that we have the inner power to overcome it. Furthermore, those sitting in the congregation — a Barna survey says more than 70% — believe that man is basically good (p. 3).

Sproul says (p. 4):

To say we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking depth, we could find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

You have no doubt heard the sayings ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ and ‘An empty paper bag makes the loudest noise’. One firebrand evangelist in 19th century America lived up to both. His name was Charles Finney. Whether we like it or not, he changed the face of much of American Christianity forever.

Whereas the earliest Reformers held to the aforementioned Solas, Finney claimed we had enough power and ability to affect our salvation alone. We don’t need divine grace — or possibly even Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection — for salvation. Sproul delivers his verdict (p. 4):

if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings — and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

Sproul anticipates that people will object to this assessment, saying that grace is necessary for sinful man’s regeneration and redemption. Then he posits — and this is important to consider (p. 4):

But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism. It never really escapes the core idea of the bondage of the soul, the captivity of the human heart to sin — that it’s not simply infected by a disease that may be fatal if left untreated, but it is mortal.

Sproul explores two semi-Pelagian stories often heard in certain churches. One concerns God throwing a drowning man a life preserver, making an exact hit to reach the man’s hands. Another is about the Almighty assisting a dying man in taking a curative medicine. In both instances, the two men are able to accept God’s help yet contribute their own ability to their rescues.

But, Sproul asks (p. 5), are these accurate and in line with conversion and salvation according to Scripture?

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Sproul goes on to describe a conversation he had with a believer who objected to his theology of grace. Sproul asked him how he came to be a Christian when his friend did not. In the end, the man says:

OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.

Astonished, Sproul concludes (p. 5):

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

Today, we have theologians (e.g. N T Wright), clergy (even in older Protestant denominations) and laity claiming that we must play a part in our salvation via ‘good works’. Divine grace cannot truly help us, certainly not fully; we must play our part and do something.

This semi-Pelagianism, made popular in the 16th century by Jacob Arminius who sought to deny the doctrine of grace as a comfort for Christians — when it did precisely the opposite, causing them endless anxiety — is the prevailing theology in many churches. And, he says, this anxiety will not disappear until — and unless (p. 6):

we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation

A little over two years ago, I explored some Church history in delving into the theologians who were brought up Calvinist but separated themselves from it.

One of these men was the Dutchman, Jacobus — James, in modern day parlance — Arminius (see here and here). His ‘free will’ theology — that a person can freely come to Christ of his own human will — is called Arminianism. A number of Protestant denominations — Methodism and Evangelical churches — espouse it. In error, so do Anglicans, because the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion no longer have their rightful place in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Arminius has provoked endless confusion in non-Calvinist denominations because he was never formally denounced. His ‘free-will’ Remonstrants in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands — and offshoots elsewhere in the world — have used this to their advantage since the late 16th century. Even today, those who have had Remonstrant professors at university consider them Calvinist, when they are nothing of the sort.

Arminius lived in difficult times, not unlike ours today (emphases mine below). As I said back in 2011:

In 1588 Arminius moved to Amsterdam and served as a Dutch Calvinist pastor.  A few years later, it was apparent to his congregation and other clergy that he was preaching ‘opinions’ about free will, which clearly contradicted Calvin and Beza’s teachings.  The city councillors of Amsterdam — European cities were still run as theocracies at the time — managed to calm everyone down enough to avoid open Protestant conflict.

The plague, running rampant through Europe at the time, brought an opportunity to ArminiusAs some of the professors at Leyden fell victim to this fatal pestilence, the University invited Arminius to teach theology.  His appointment was not approved without controversy among the faculty.  Their difference in religious views also coincided with political partisanship, to the extent that Arminius and his staunchly Calvinist rival Franciscus Gomarus were invited to the Hague to each deliver speeches before the Supreme Court in 1608.  (Politics and Protestant Christianity were closely bound in the Netherlands until the 20th century.)

By the time Arminius and Gomarus were invited back to the Hague the following year for a second conference, their respective viewpoints had begun to split Reformed clergy around the country. Arminius did not last the full duration of the second conference and returned to Leiden because of ill health. He died in October 1609.  However, his legacy of free will theology — as expressed in what he called Arminianism — lives on to the present day, most notably in Wesleyan and Evangelical churches, particularly in the United States.  Arminian followers of the 17th century were called Remonstrants, adhering to a radically revised view of Calvinism — which ended up being no Calvinism at all.

You might ask what the ‘problem’ is with ‘free will’. The difficulty is that it leads to the heresy of Pelagianism — salvation through good works and one’s own will — or semi-Pelagianism. Part of the difficulty with Christianity today is that no one knows the various heresies anymore; as such, they do not know how to avoid errors of faith, some of which are grave sins, which contradict the New Testament. See my Christianity / Apologetics page under ‘Heresy’ for more.

The problem with Arminianism is that, in the words of Dr Herman C Hanko, Professor Emeritus of the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grandville, Michigan:

Ultimately the free offer also makes the perseverance of the saints a doubtful matter. It stands to reason that if man can either accept or reject the gospel offer, he can at one time accept it, at another time reject it, and yet again accept it. But because his salvation is dependent upon what he does, his salvation hangs by the thin thread of his own free will. Thus his final salvation is always in doubt. He can fall away from the faith, and he can, while once having accepted Christ, still spurn Him in the future. It is undoubtedly this general Arminian teaching that is the basis for revivals and recommitments to Christ through the invitation.

Read John 6 and the Epistles of St Paul — Romans, in particular — for scriptural backup.

Theological error causes much conflict, still alive in our doctrinally weakening churches today. Lutherans rightly take objection to Universal Objective Justification (UOJ), which, if I understand it correctly, says that everyone, in principle, is saved. The few orthodox Anglicans around grieve the lack of education on the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion — a combination of the original Lutheran and Calvinist theology based on the New Testament. True Calvinists, having condemned the original Arminianism, are now calling attention to its latest incarnation, Federal Vision, which attempts to combine Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Revd N T Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul (see my Christianity / Apologetics page for that series of errors) with classical education, therefore, legitimising this pernicious falsehood.

In short, if your mind is spinning now, what this boils down to is false teaching.

Dr R Scott Clark  of Westminster Seminary California (WSC) asks in his Heidelblog — in light of this Federal Vision encircling certain Reformed churches — whether a modern day Arminius should be invited to preach in a Reformed church. His answer is certainly not, but let us look at the historical background he gives to Arminius and the Reformed Church in the Netherlands of the late 16th and early 17th century.

This gives insight into the Remonstrants claim to be Calvinist, despite Arminius’s theological errors:

Despite the intense controversy that his views and teaching generated, views that fractured the church, that nearly ignited a civil war in the Netherlands, that split a university, and that ultimately led to the convocation of the greatest international synod in the history of the Reformed churches, the Synod of Dort (1618–19), Arminius remained and died a minister in good standing in the Reformed churches. Partly this was a fluke. Arminius died in 1609 and the Synod did not conclude for a decade later. At the time of his death there was great controversy but there was not unanimity as to what Arminius was actually teaching. This was intentional. Arminius was intentionally vague, even to the point of being deceptive. Despite the fact that he rejected significant aspects of established Reformed teaching, despite the fact the seemed bent on leading the Reformed churches away from the gospel and back to a form of medieval moralism and synergism, despite the fact the he called into question the teaching of the Reformed confessions, despite the fact that it was he, and not his opponents, who was elevated to Rector of the University of Leiden, and despite the fact that it was Gormarus (and not Arminius) who left the University, Arminius whined incessantly about the hardships he allegedly suffered at the hands of the evil orthodox.

To this day — and Dr Clark rightly cites Dr Roger Olson’s blog (yes, it’s in my blogroll, because he does cause one to think) — as being an example of an Arminian who objects to notional nasty Calvinists.

Yet, the Remonstrants of Arminius’s Dutch tradition carry on. They let the rest of the world think they are Calvinists — with great success, I might add (Lutherans have mistakenly come to believe that Calvinists are Universalists) — yet, they themselves decry the teachings of Calvin and Beza based on the New Testament. It’s a win-win for the Remonstrants.

Dr Clark says that, eventually, the learned representatives of the Dutch Reformed churches which met at Dort in the Netherlands to resolve the Arminian controversy concluded:

This Church has been attacked, first secretly and then publicly, by Jacobus Arminius and his followers (bearing the name of Remonstrants). They did this by means of various old and new errors. These flourishing churches, being persistently disturbed by offensive disputes and schisms, have been brought into such grave peril that they were in danger of being consumed by a dreadful fire of discord.


They rejected the errors of the Remonstrants categorically and declared that the Remonstrants had brought “again out of hell the Pelagian error” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3).

In light of this, Clark rightly asks whether, in the name of unity, whether a Reformed church today should ask someone akin to Arminius (e.g. someone of the Federal Vision preaching N T Wright’s New Perspectives on Paul) to preach in their church:

In light of the judgment of the Synod of Dort, had you the opportunity, would you allow James Arminius into your pulpit? After all, he died in good standing with the Reformed churches. After all, he professed adherence to the Reformed confessions. Of course not! Why not? Because you know, despite Arminius’ protestations, that he was not actually a minister of the Word as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches. You know that he was disingenuous, that it’s not possible to reconcile what Arminius actually believed and taught with what the Word of God says.

If that is the case, then, what if you had the opportunity to allow a modern-day Arminius into your pulpit, would you do it? What if he was well-regarded by many as a social conservative and as a witty and articulate defender of the faith against a rising tide of neo-atheism? It does seem as if the foundations of the culture and civil society are collapsing and that the faith is under intense public assault.

No, never acquiesce to admitting or listening to an error-ridden clergyman — no matter how charming or relevant — preach in your church.

This is what Clark has to say about Pelagius and Arminius. This is why learning Church history is so essential:

The heart of the Roman Empire was sacked in 410. Their world was literally crumbling before their eyes. The British monk Pelagius was known for his strong adherence to Christian morality. He was also well-known for his denial of the doctrine of original sin, depravity, and what we today call the doctrines of grace. Should the churches of North Africa have overlooked his doctrinal errors and should they have invited him to speak to their congregations? As a matter of history, they did not. They prosecuted his errors in the courts of the church most vigorously and condemned his teaching repeatedly. Indeed, the entire catholic church (Ephesus, 431 etc) condemned his doctrine.

Arminius lived during a time a great social and cultural upheaval. The Reformed churches might well have said to themselves that the cultural and social issues they faced were too great to worry about doctrinal fine points. Indeed, there were powerful voices, some of whom protected Arminius from his critics in Amsterdam and in Leiden, who favored doctrinal latitudinarianism, who thought that Arminius had some good and useful things to say. We may be thankful, however, that the churches did not take this view.

Study the New Testament. Knowing the New Testament enlightens study of the Old Covenant made with Moses. We see that God was preparing Israel — via the Mosaic Laws — for the advent and birth of Christ Jesus. Christ came to fulfil that Law.

The Gospel and Epistle authors are careful at every stage and in every chapter to explain who Jesus is and what He taught.

There are no contradictions in the truth of Christ.

If you study novels, politics or film, please make time to put those aside for a while in order to absorb the New Testament this year. You’ll be glad you did. You’ll also be able to spot the errors in Arminianism and various heresies old and new.

Until a few years ago, the name Charles Grandison Finney meant nothing to me. However, many American Protestants will have been unknowingly influenced by his 19th century Pelagianism.

In 1995, Dr Michael Horton examined the long shadow of Finneyism on the American Church in ‘The Legacy of Charles Finney’, written for Modern Reformation magazine.  Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), a host of the White Horse Inn broadcasts and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Horton’s essay is lengthy and absorbing reading for anyone seeking a better understanding of Protestant denominations in America. Charles Finney has influenced fundamentalist preachers as well as social gospel ministries. Horton explains how Finney’s man-centred, emotional and experiential focus works. Excerpts follow, emphases mine:

Finney’s moralistic impulse envisioned a church that was in large measure an agency of personal and social reform rather than the institution in which the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, are made available to believers who then take the Gospel to the world … Evangelists pitched their American gospel in terms of its practical usefulness to the individual and the nation.

That is why Finney is so popular. He is the tallest marker in the shift from Reformation orthodoxy, evident in the Great Awakening (under Edwards and Whitefield) to Arminian (indeed, even Pelagian) revivalism, evident from the Second Great Awakening to the present. To demonstrate the debt of modern evangelicalism to Finney, we must first notice his theological departures. From these departures, Finney became the father of the antecedents to some of today’s greatest challenges within evangelical churches, namely, the church growth movement, Pentecostalism and political revivalism.

Who is Finney?

Reacting against the pervasive Calvinism of the Great Awakening, the successors of that great movement of God’s Spirit turned from God to humans, from the preaching of objective content (namely, Christ and him crucified) to the emphasis on getting a person to “make a decision.”

Charles Finney (1792-1875) ministered in the wake of the “Second Awakening,” as it has been called. A Presbyterian lawyer, Finney one day experienced “a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost” which “like a wave of electricity going through and through me … seemed to come in waves of liquid love” … Refusing to attend Princeton Seminary (or any seminary, for that matter), Finney began conducting revivals in upstate New York. One of his most popular sermons was “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.”

Finney’s one question for any given teaching was, “Is it fit to convert sinners with?” One result of Finney’s revivalism was the division of Presbyterians in Philadelphia and New York into Arminian and Calvinistic factions. His “New Measures” included the “anxious bench” (precursor to today’s altar call), emotional tactics that led to fainting and weeping, and other “excitements,” as Finney and his followers called them …

What’s So Wrong with Finney’s Theology?

One need go no further than the table of contents of his Systematic Theology to learn that Finney’s entire theology revolved around human morality … a collection of essays on ethics.

But that is not to say that Finney’s Systematic Theology does not contain some significant theological statements …

Finney declares of the Reformation’s formula simul justus et peccator or “simultaneously justified and sinful,” “This error has slain more souls, I fear, than all the Universalism that ever cursed the world.” For, “Whenever a Christian sins he comes under condemnation, and must repent and do his first works, or be lost” (p.60).

Finney’s doctrine of justification rests upon a denial of the doctrine of original sinAs someone has said, “We sin because we’re sinners”: the condition of sin determines the acts of sin, rather than vice versa. But Finney followed Pelagius, the fifth-century heretic, who was condemned by more church councils than any other person in church history, in denying this doctrine.

… In clear terms, Finney denied the notion that human beings possess a sinful nature (ibid.). Therefore, if Adam leads us into sin, not by our inheriting his guilt and corruption, but by following his poor example, this leads logically to the view of Christ, the Second Adam, as saving by example …

That is not entirely fair, of course, because Finney did believe that Christ died for something—not for someone, but for something. In other words, he died for a purpose, but not for people. The purpose of that death was to reassert God’s moral government and to lead us to eternal life by example, as Adam’s example excited us to sin … Not only did Finney believe that the “moral influence” theory of the atonement was the chief way of understanding the cross; he explicitly denied the substitutionary atonement

Then there is the matter of applying redemption. Throwing off Reformation orthodoxy, Finney argued strenuously against the belief that the new birth is a divine gift, insisting that “regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference; or in changing from selfishness to love or benevolence,” as moved by the moral influence of Christ’s moving example (p.224) …

Having nothing to do with original sin, a substitutionary atonement, and the supernatural character of the new birth, Finney proceeds to attack “the article by which the church stands or falls”— justification by grace alone through faith alone.

Distorting the Cardinal Doctrine of Justification

The Reformers insisted, on the basis of clear biblical texts, that justification (in the Greek, “to declare righteous,” rather than “to make righteous”) was a forensic (i.e., legal) verdict … Therefore, it was a perfect, once and-for-all verdict of right standing …

To this, Finney replies: “The doctrine of imputed righteousness, or that Christ’s obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption.” … (pp.320-2) …

Finney Today

... With roots in Finney’s revivalism, perhaps evangelical and liberal Protestantism are not that far apart after all. His “New Measures,” like today’s Church Growth Movement, made human choices and emotions the center of the church’s ministry, ridiculed theology, and replaced the preaching of Christ with the preaching of conversion ...

When the leaders of the Church Growth Movement claim that theology gets in the way of growth and insist that it does not matter what a particular church believes: growth is a matter of following the proper principles, they are displaying their debt to Finney.

When leaders of the Vineyard movement praise this sub-Christian enterprise and the barking, roaring, screaming, laughing, and other strange phenomena on the basis that “it works” and one must judge its truth by its fruit, they are following Finney as well as the father of American pragmatism, William James, who declared that truth must be judged on the basis of “its cash-value in experiential terms.”

Thus, in Finney’s theology, God is not sovereign, man is not a sinner by nature, the atonement is not a true payment for sin, justification by imputation is insulting to reason and morality, the new birth is simply the effect of successful techniques, and revival is a natural result of clever campaigns

As Whitney R. Cross has carefully documented, the stretch of territory in which Finney’s revivals were most frequent was also the cradle of the perfectionistic cults that plagued that century. A gospel that “works” for zealous perfectionists one moment merely creates tomorrow’s disillusioned and spent supersaints

Christians and interfaith groups campaigning today against alcohol and tobacco borrow from Finney.  Theonomists striving for a ‘moral America’ owe the idea to Finney. The evangelical witness testifying ‘Today, I made the decision to be saved’ has ripped a page out of the Finney notebook. The parents who seek formulaic holiness in church activities and at home with ‘godly’ parenting books have copied Finney’s theology. The pastor who says that an emotional ‘experience’ of Christ indicates salvation is borrowing from Finney, whether he realises it or not.

Finney’s theology, imbued as it is in many corners of America, produces confusion when people leaving an unbiblical Evangelical church for a confessional denomination encounter the doctrine of grace for the first time.

This is the danger of heresy — it’s false, oppressive, confusing, painful and soul-destroying in many ways. It also leads people away from the crucified and risen Christ who freed us by dying and rising from the dead for us.

Tomorrow: Legalistic Lutheranism – part 1

A couple of weeks ago, news appeared in the blogosphere that the well-known Baptist pastor John Piper and the Roman Catholic Lectio Divina proponent Beth Moore appeared recently at the Passion 2012 Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. (H/T: Anna Wood)

The Revd Ken Silva from Apprising Ministries carries the story (emphases mine):

It’s an incontrovertible fact that right from its hatching in hell corrupt Contemplative Spirituality/Mysticism (CSM), such as that taught by Living Spiritual Teacher and Quaker mystic Richard Foster along with his spiritual twin and Southern Baptist minister Dallas Willard, was a core doctrine

It’s also giving rise to a rebirth of Pietism; this isn’t surprising when you consider that CSM flowered in the antibiblical monastic traditions of apostate Roman Catholicism. As the evangelical fad of CSM expands there’s a decided charismania also developing, which is producing a syncretism where Word Faith heretics like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are essentially considered mainstream now. With all of this has come more and more people claiming to have direct experience with God

Hosted by Louis Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, Passion featured an interesting lineup of speakers such Francis Chan, Beth Moore and New Calvinist mentor John Piper. Not surpisingly the conference had a distinctive charismatic and even contemplative flair; e.g. prayer walking. After one session the crowd was urged to break into “love groups” and go out to pray and “take back the city of Atlanta.”

One can certainly point a finger at the Roman Catholic Church, but, as I wrote in the comments on Anna’s site, what has occurred at Passion 2012 is more symptomatic of 17th century Lutheran/Moravian pietism in general and of the Holiness movement which dates back to 19th century Methodism and advanced in the following century through the many Holiness denominations. Ultimately, this led to our current charismatic services and Pentecostal churches.

John Wesley borrowed heavily from Moravian pietists whose acquaintance he made on the journey from England to America. After his return to Europe, he even studied at their HQ in Herrnhut, Germany.

Although pietism has its most ancient beginnings in the earliest days of the Church, it was later revived when Germans and Scandinavians became disillusioned with ‘staid’ state churches and wanted something more.

Today, however, I am sorry to read that Dr Piper — a confessional, or Particular, Baptist — has fallen for more pietistic holiness (Rick Warren being the foremost example), hallmarks of which include contemplative prayer, Quaker quietism (‘let go and let God’ — wait until you get a ‘sign’ of some sort), small groups, personal accountability, public confession, overt sentimentality, strong emotional worship, receiving ‘divine messages’ and personal testimony over doctrine (or the Bible).

Yet, these activities are everywhere. Even Church of England vicars encourage them — contemplative prayer, especially. A number of Anglican churches offer days or mornings of ‘silent prayer’, which is the same thing.

Pietism is known for its ecumenism, so it’s no surprise that Passion 2012 featured speakers from a variety of Christian denominations.  Unfortunately, those denominations which practice pietism — holiness churches, in particular — will be affected by these cross-currents.  The Church of the Nazarene has experienced an onslaught of Fuller Seminary and Roman Catholic influence: The Reformed Nazarene blog chronicles them in detail. I empathise with Nazarenes who wish to keep their denomination pure, but, ultimately, this is the outcome of pietism and the holiness movement.  The Nazarenes emerged from the Wesleyan holiness movement in the 19th century.

Pietism is experiential, emotional and introspective. It seeks to transform denominations, if not the Church as a whole, in order to bring about personal and moral change.

Bob DeWaay, who has been in discernment ministry most of his life, admits to having fallen prey to pietism:

My journey into the “deeper life” oftentimes involved embracing contradictory teachings. For example, two of my favorite teachers in the early 1970’s were Watchman Nee and Kenneth Hagin. One taught a deeper Christian life through suffering[1]) and the other taught a higher order Christianity that could cause one to be free from bodily ailments and poverty.[2]The hook was that both claimed to have the secret to becoming an extraordinary Christian. I found out that they didn’t.

My dissatisfaction with the Christianity taught in Bible College[3] led me to join a Christian commune some months after graduation. That group’s founder taught that all ordinary churches and Bible Colleges were caught up in “religious Babylon.” He taught that the kingdom of God was to be found by quitting one’s job, selling one’s possessions, giving the money to the commune, and moving in together to be devoted to the “kingdom” twenty four hours a day. So in my search to become an extraordinary Christian I did what he said and joined …

By God’s grace I went back to the Bible and determined to merely teach verse by verse from that point on. It took another five or six years to rid myself of the various errors I had embraced and then I taught Romans in 1986. Through that study I came to appreciate the doctrines of grace. That understanding opened my thinking and was the turning point for my ministry. I also came to realize that the wrong-thinking that attracted me to pietism was that I held to a theology based on human ability rather than grace alone. Once I grasped that, I never looked back …

Pietism can be practiced many ways including enforced solitude, asceticism of various forms, man made religious practices, legalism, submission to human authorities who claim special status, and many other practices and teachings

These appear to most poorly taught Christians to be what the Lord wants. They reason, “Of course God is happier with a person who sells all and moves into a convent where he takes an oath of poverty than He is with someone who goes to work forty hours a week and uses some of the money to buy things.” Is He? When I was a pietist, if someone told me he prayed two hours a day, then I had to pray three hours to make sure I wasn’t missing out on something. I reasoned, “Of course God is happier with a Christian who prays three hours than one who prays two.” Is He? When I was a pietist I would work on cranking up my desire for holiness because I reasoned that holiness is found through something in the person rather than through God’s grace. Based on sermons I’d heard I reasoned, “Christians are not experiencing a higher degree of holiness because they do not desire it enough.” Is that true? No, none of these pietistic statements are true. Such teachings lead to elitism and comparing ourselves to others. The Bible tells us not to do that. Paul stated that these practices “are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

I, along with confessional Lutherans, would disagree with DeWaay when he goes on to say that Spener was not a pietist but only reacting against a State Church. Spener’s theology was deeply pietist in that he promoted small groups (conventicles), agonised repentance and giving up worldly entertainments. He promoted justification by works through holiness and self-deprivation.

However, DeWaay rightly cites John Wesley as being a pietist:

Wesley’s Methodism and perfectionism were themselves pietistic. Wesley is an example of a much less extreme pietism. But the idea that some humanly discovered and implemented method can lead to the achievement of a better Christian life than through the ordinary means of grace is nevertheless pietism.

He is careful to draw a line between Wesley and Charles Finney, pre-eminent during the Second Great Awakening in the United States:

Wesley at least held to prevenient grace so as to avoid Pelagianism.[20] Finney was fully Pelagian in his approach to both salvation and sanctification.[21] And his innovations permanently changed much of American Evangelicalism. After Finney other perfectionist movements arose. The Holiness movement, for example, came not long after Finney. Both the Holiness movement and the subsequent Pentecostal movement held to second blessing doctrines that by nature are pietist because they create an elite category of Christians who have had a special experience that ordinary Christians lack.

DeWaay calls our attention to the Emergent Church and Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church as the most recent examples of pietism:

Today the largest new pietist movement is the Emergent Church. As I pointed out earlier, pietism often arises in response to the perception (sometimes warranted) that the church has become too worldly and it seems true once again today. Some now assume that since ordinary Christianity is compromised, they must discover an extraordinary way to become better Christians. One Emergent leader has even entitled one of his works, “A New Kind of Christian.”[22] But this movement really isn’t all that new. It draws on teachings and practices found in other pietist movements in church history. In fact, a recent Emergent book includes essays by those experimenting with communal living, something I tried in my pietist days![23]

Furthermore, the Purpose Driven movement is also a pietistic movement. Rick Warren claims there are world class Christians that are in a better category than ordinary Christians. He had his followers take a long oath at a baseball field to pledge themselves to serving his new reformation. I already mentioned the apostles and prophets movement that is pietistic. So ironically, three huge movements in American evangelicalism (Purpose Driven, Emergent, and C. Peter Wagner’s latter day apostles) are all based on pietism. The three movements seem radically diverse, but each one claims to be a new reformation and each offers a higher status than that of ordinary Christians.

He cautions us against movements preaching against ‘dead orthodoxy’ and notes that the Charismatics are also pietist in this regard.

He also notes that the problem is not with orthodoxy but with church members, who are often spiritually dead:

Pietism misdiagnoses the problem and creates a false solution. It sees a compromised church that is apparently caught in dead orthodoxy. The real problem is not dead orthodoxy but spiritually dead sinners who give mental assent to orthodox truth but show no signs of regeneration. If indeed such a church existed (if truth really is there God has His remnant there as well), that church would be characterized by worldliness and sin. This is the case because dead sinners do not bear spiritual fruit. There was a church in Revelation that Jesus called “dead.” Pietism that holds to the true gospel but goes beyond it imagining that the dead sinners who are church members are Christians. When some of them become regenerate through the efforts of the pietists, they assume they have now entered a higher class of Christianity. They posit two types of Christian: “carnal” Christians and “spiritual” Christians. But in reality there are only Christians and dead sinners. 

DeWaay writes that pietists end up ignoring the Gospel message in favour of works righteousness:

When I was a pietist I thought salvation was an interesting first step a person took, but mostly lost interest in the topic unless I ran across someone who needed to pray the sinners prayer, which I imagined was the first step. The gospel of Christ was only of marginal interest to me as I sought the “deeper things.” The more I tried to be a very special type of Christian, the further my mind wandered from the cross. I was guilty of the very thing for which Paul rebuked the Corinthians.

It seems that people fall for pietism in its various guises because it gives them a sense of reassurance — misguided though it is. Charismatics and Pentecostalists enjoy the heady experiences of being ‘born again’ — speaking in tongues, for instance — something they can do and feel.  Others believe that dressing differently sets them ‘apart’ from the world as does abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and certain foodstuffs. Hence, some desire to join faith communes, which is radical pietism. Then, there are the ‘mystics’ who follow Lectio Divina and believe they are channelling a ‘higher consciousness’, who are most likely Christian refugees from the New Age movement.  This leads to a Gnosticism of sorts — a supposed special, secret knowledge or spiritual attainment that other people lack.

Sadly, this desire to ‘experience’ Christianity can lead people down the paths of error: Pelagianism and Gnosticism are heresies.  The rest of us would do well to pray for these people and hope that God’s grace leads them to a true confessional denomination.

When the Georgia Guidestones first appeared in the news in 1980, I was at university:

Elbert County owns the Georgia Guidestones site. According to the Georgia Mountain Travel Association’s detailed history: “The Georgia Guidestones are located on the farm of Mildred and Wayne Mullenix…”[3] The Elbert County land registration system shows what appears to be the Guidestones as County land purchased on October 1, 1979. [4][5]

The monument was unveiled in March 1980, with the presence of 100 people.[6] Another account specifies March 22, 1980 and said 400 people attended.[2]

My friends and I discussed it in the dining hall. One said, ‘It’s really evil — all about population control.’ I, on the other hand, found the messages quite intriguing and perfect for the end of the 20th century.  Our group had a dinnertime discussion about the morality and ethics behind the ‘ten guides for a New Age of Reason’ (image at left courtesy of Wikipedia):

1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
2. Guide reproduction wisely – improving fitness and diversity.
3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
4. Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason.
5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
9. Prize truth – beauty – love – seeking harmony with the infinite.
10. Be not a cancer on the earth – Leave room for nature – Leave room for nature.

I accused my friend of not having bothered reading past the first point, to which she said, ‘A “world court” would be really problematic. It would be like the UN. This is the United States of America! We don’t need world courts!’

In her Midwestern state, many people outside the larger towns and cities were deeply suspicious of the United Nations. It was not unusual for someone in that part of the world to pay in perpetuity for a billboard in the countryside that said ‘Get US out of the UN!’ At that time, the only people who thought like that had read books by the John Birch Society or heard their ideas discussed by friends or family.

So, I ignored what she had to say and forgot all about the Georgia Guidestones. Everyone else in our group was more anti- than pro-, by the way.

Over the past couple of years, however, I started reading about them again online. My occasional correspondent, Rogue Lutheran, sent me a few links to peruse in 2010, which got me going.

Thirty years on, after having reread the ten guides and the articles, I now think that the whole concept and content are rather depressing. So, my sincere apologies to Rogue Lutheran for not having written on them earlier.

It turns out that we still don’t know who paid for this humanist monument de nos jours, although speculation abounds. The only thing we know is that its sponsors are or were

A small group
of Americans who seek
the Age of Reason.

The author of this multilingual message is one R C Christian, which is a pseudonym. The word is misspelled on the stone as ‘pseudonyn’. I bet whoever commissioned it is rather annoyed about that.

Those who are familiar with esoteric (gnostic) societies surmise that R C Christian is a person (or persons) involved in Rosicrucianism, which used to be advertised in the back of Sunday newspaper supplements. They also call for

a global religion, world courts, and for population levels to be maintained at around 500 million, over a 5.5 billion reduction from current levels. The stones infer that humans are a cancer upon the earth and should be culled in order to maintain balance with nature.”[8]

Throughout the 1970s, overpopulation, the biosphere (as it was called then) and pollution were big news. The word ‘ecologist’ went mainstream at that time. These were experts, don’t you know, and I took what they had to say seriously. Guest editorials in newspapers and cover articles in newsweeklies covered these subjects regularly.

Back then, our society was much freer and much more given — in my opinion — to conspicuous consumption. Maybe it was just newer then; it was certainly cheaper. People also seemed happier, although not as happy as they were in the 1960s.  However, we had fewer laws then, although the clamour for more regulation of industry was increasing.

Now that we are in the 21st century, we have more laws not only for businesses but also many of a personal nature — more than we even know about.  It seems to me, that regardless of who devised the ten guides, we are being forced into them. Even OccupyZine — the magazine of the Occupy movement — has called them to its adherents’ attention.

The OccupyZine link directs readers to an article published by the Vigilant Citizen in 2010 called ‘Sinister Sites: The Georgia Guidestones’.

Vigilant Citizen (VC) writes:

As you can see, the guidelines call for a drastic reduction of the world population, the adoption of new a world language, the creation of a world court and a vague allusions to eugenics. In other words, a blueprint for a New World Order.

The first “commandment” is particularly shocking, since it basically stipulates that 12 out of 13 people on Earth should not exist; basically, that would mean everybody in the world would disappear except half of India. If today’s world population is 6,7 billion, then that is a 92.54% surplus. To consider these figures is mind-boggling. But then, how many people survived in the movie 2012? Not many. Who were they? The earth’s wealthiest people. Is this predictive programming?

The last rule of the Guidestones, “Be not a cancer on the earth – leave room for nature – leave room for nature” is particularly disturbing as it compares human life to cancer on earth. With this state of mind, it is easy to rationalize the extinction of nearly all of the world’s population.

VC also notes:

The second rule (“Guide reproduction wisely – improving diversity and fitness”) basically calls for the inference of lawmakers into the management of family units. If we read between the lines, it requires to creation of laws structuring the number of children per family. Furthermore, “improving diversity and fitness” can be obtained with “selective breeding” or the sterilization of undesirable members of society. This used to be called “eugenics”, until it became politically incorrect because of the Nazis.

VC has read the Georgia Guidestones Guidebook and provides several helpful quotations from it which promote the idea of a world government and world courts.

In their own words, the authors have chosen to stay anonymous

in order to avoid debate and contention which might confuse our meaning, and which might delay a considered review of our thoughts. We believe that our precepts are sound. They must stand on their own merits …

Fair enough. But they also are in favour of

A diverse and prosperous world population in perpetual balance with global resources will be the cornerstone for a rational world order. People of good will in all nations must work to establish that balance …

With the completion of the central cluster of The Georgia Guidestones our small sponsoring group has disbanded. We leave the monument in the safekeeping of the people of Elbert County, Georgia.

If our inscribed words are dimmed by the wear of wind and sun and time, we ask that you will cut them deeper. If the stones should fall, or if they be scattered by people of little understanding. we ask that you will raise them up again.


We have enough laws controlling our own behaviour as it is. I predict that the exponential increase in laws regulating personal conduct will be the theme which history shows as characteristic of the first two decades of the 21st century.

VC explains that R C Christian (emphases in the original):

is a clear reference to Christian Rosenkreuz whose English name is Christian Rose Cross, the legendary founder of the Rosicrucian Order. Some might say that the resemblance between R.C. Christian and Christian Rose Cross is the result of an odd coincidence. As we will see, it is however only one of the MANY references to Rosicrucianism associated with the monument. This is only one piece of the puzzle, but an important piece nonetheless.

Rosenkreuz (1378 – 1484) was kidnapped as a five-year old by an Albigensian and raised in one of their monasteries.  Therefore, he fell under the Bogomilist spell with the Albigenses in the south of France. Bogomilism is a heresy which is again picking up in popularity.

VC has also picked up on the loss of personal liberties and freedom:

Reading between the lines, the Guidestones require from the masses the loss of many personal liberties and to submit to heightened governmental control on many social issues … not to mention the death of 92.5% of the population…and probably not those of the “elite”. Is the concept of a democracy “by and for the people”, as idealized by the Founding Fathers a mere illusion, a temporary solution until the introduction of  socialist world government? Why are the world’s citizens not being consulted in a democratic matter? I guess it is easier for the elites to manufacture consent through mass medias. But maybe it won’t work on everybody…

Someone defaced one of the tablets in 2008, but the stones must be pretty securely placed to have survived intact — outside of a few chips — up to now.

It seems that this would be a good subject for Sunday School ethics classes for those in secondary school. If you’re reading this and happen to teach a class of youngsters, it would make a good lesson or two on discernment.

One of the links Rogue Lutheran sent me is from Van’s Hardware Journal. Don’t be dissuaded by the name of the blog; this post, ‘Decoding the Georgia Guidestones’, tells the local story.  As mentioned earlier, no one is sure of the identity of R C Christian, however, there are even a few local Elberton possibilities, including someone who closely followed Alice A Bailey’s Theosophist teachings, which she and her husband turned into the Lucifer Publishing Company in 1920. It is now Lucis Trust and well known for its New Age publications.

The Baileys’ Lucis Trust and their Arcane School, Van tells us (emphases mine):

have become very influential organizations and appear to be favored as the blueprint for a United Nations endorsed world religion.

A central theme in this Theosophical lineage … is the idea that man can attain divinity. As such, God becomes the jealous adversary working to thwart man’s elevation to godhood. Satan, or, more commonly in modern occult circles, Lucifer is seen as man’s ally, the Bringer of Light, the Bestower of Knowledge.

Therefore, it is a blend of Pelagianism — man’s ‘divinity’ — with satanic ideas and gnosticism, or secret knowledge.

Van’s Hardware Journal explains a possible Guidestones scenario for the unfortunate masses — well worth using if you ever teach this subject:

Through a state run eugenics program, Christian believes the world can produce “healthier and more productive human beings” over each succeeding generation. “Superior human intelligence, compassion and drive” and other “desirable mental and physical qualities” can also be enhanced under such eugenic conditions.

Humorously yet sinisterly, Christian cites “docility” and “loyalty” achieved through selective breeding in dogs as evidence that “comparable but more important modifications” in human behavior can be achieved through eugenics.

In R.C. Christian’s “Age of Reason,” even if the state allows you to have children, you will be required to raise them under strict conditions so as to “mold their characters and to develop their potentials as socially worthwhile adults.”

That is, if the state even allows you to keep them.

Because even if you and your spouse are considered good breeding stock, the state might find you “temperamentally unsuited for parenthood.” In which case, your children will be transferred “to the care of others capable of nurturing them into well adjusted adulthood”

And don’t think that you are safe just because you lined up for voluntary sterilization.

For instance, if the economy is bad and you lose your job, in Robert Christian’s rational world order, you will have to become a slave of the state to survive. You won’t be able to vote and you will be compelled to work jobs often held by illegal immigrants, who will then be displaced back to their native lands. If you don’t like your job and quit, you will starve.

Not only will you have to be suitably employed or own a private business to vote, you will also have to pass both intelligence and “educational requirements” tests to prove to the state that you are worthy of the right of suffrage. Want to run for public office? Robert Christian has more tests that you will need to pass first.

Speaking of rights, you will have none if Christian gets his way. Rights to him are privileges that the state will only bestow upon you if you properly serve the state.

And don’t forget your identity card! In Christian’s nightmare world, everyone is required to carry with them a unique biometric ID card. Without one you will not be able to get work or get government help.

Okay, so you are a good citizen in Christian’s new age world. You might be allowed to have children. You might be allowed to raise them. You might be lucky enough to find a suitable job so that you can vote.

Just be sure not to get sick or injured, because Christian believes the state must ration health care “favoring those individuals whose continuing lives are most valuable” to the state.

But you were injured because your new Halliburton electric toothbrush exploded in your right hand, blowing it off at the wrist and blinding you for life. Surely, you have recourse to litigation. No, Christian wants to place caps on litigation and let financial damage beyond this limit fall to his state’s wonderfully efficient and fair health and welfare system.

Unfortunately, that means that since you can no longer work, you will lose your voting privileges, almost certainly lose your child because you will not be able to care for him properly on welfare and you will receive the lowest standard of medical care available because you are no longer productive for the state.

It’s all very rational and reasonable in Christian’s mind.

Yet, I run across a number of commenters on British and American blogs who also (sadly) would find this all perfectly reasonable.

What does the Bible say about each of these ten guides of our time?

Short answer: obey the Ten Commandments and one will have no need for the ten guides.

What follows is a brief history of pietism, a subject to which this blog intends to return with practical, modern examples.

Our churches today are full of ‘holy’ behaviours and small groups meant to reinforce them for the ‘true’ believer. I use these words advisedly, as orthodox Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans believe that it is only by grace through faith that a person is saved and comes to share eternal life with Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic doctrine

We would do well to begin by reviewing what the Catholic Church teaches on sin, as this will feature throughout this series. The Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of impeccability, whereby it is believed that saints in Heaven and souls in Purgatory awaiting union with God cannot sin. The Catholic Church believes in free will, and, to this end, promotes a faith-plus-works teaching so that adherents will be able to be perfect like Christ.

Christ instructed His followers (Matthew 5:48):

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Indeed, Christian perfection has existed from the early Church through to the present day and in Protestant circles is referred to as pietism. In other words, there are two sides to this story: a) the orthodox Reformation view of sanctification through God’s grace working through us to bear the fruits of our faith and b) the manmade, legalistic Pelagian acts and works towards that end which imply or demand that we can redeem ourselves. The gulf between the two is great.

The Anglican — state church — in Post-Reformation England

A number of state-established churches in northern Europe after the Reformation forbade worship outside the official church setting.  Although the following laws are no longer in force in England, they were deemed necessary at the time:

Religion Act 1592: Under Elizabeth I, anyone 16 and over who failed to attend the Anglican church, encouraged others to follow suit or who met in small groups — conventicles — could be imprisoned without bail. Upon serving their sentence, they were given three months to begin attending the Church of England. If they failed to do so, they had to leave England. This law was temporary and lasted for the term of that particular Parliament.

Conventicle Act 1664: Enacted during the Restoration by Charles II, this law forbade small group gatherings outside of the Church of England. It included all Christians.  It was preceded by the Quaker Act of 1662, obliging all citizens to swear allegiance to the King as well as the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which required the use and rites of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) in all church gatherings. However, a decade later, Charles II would grant permission for a limited number of nonconformist chapels.

Conventicles Act 1670: Parliament passed a law in 1670 forbidding any meeting of small groups or use of a meeting house for worship and assembly outside of the rites of the Church of England. This was to suppress ‘seditious’ conventicles.  Offending laypeople were fined four times less than clergy were.

If you click on the Wikipedia links, you’ll see engravings of nonconformist and ‘seditious’ gatherings taking place out of doors.  This was so the groups could avoid fines and imprisonment.  Pietism and the outdoors are closely linked — as are small groups.

The Lutheran — state church — in Germany

A number of practising Lutherans in the 17th century believed that the established church in Germany was reluctant to promote a lively Christian faith.

The official founder of the pietist movement was Philipp Jakob Spener, born in Alsace (now part of France) in 1635. Spener studied theology in Strasbourg, still the principal city of the region, then moved on to see what the Calvinists and the Waldensians were doing in Geneva. There he met a number of professors and pastors who deeply impressed him.

Spener believed that German Lutheranism had lost its moral and religious focus. He blamed Lutheran orthodoxy for this, which is probably not much different to the theological or intellectual conflicts occurring in other Christian countries today between evangelically-minded and orthodox Christians.

As a pastor in Frankfurt in 1666, Spener decided on a course of action to remedy the situation by holding conventicles, or small groups, in his house. There, he preached sermons and taught from the New Testament. He invited questions from those assembled and engaged in dialogue with them.

In 1675, Spener wrote (emphases mine):

Pia desideria or Earnest Desire for a Reform of the True Evangelical Church, the title giving rise to the term “Pietists”. This was originally a pejorative term given to the adherents of the movement by its enemies as a form of ridicule …

In Pia desideria, Spener made six proposals as the best means of restoring the life of the Church:

  1. the earnest and thorough study of the Bible in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the church”).
  2. the Christian priesthood being universal, the laity should share in the spiritual government of the Church
  3. a knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement
  4. instead of merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them
  5. a reorganization of the theological training of the universities, giving more prominence to the devotional life
  6. a different style of preaching, namely, in the place of pleasing rhetoric, the implanting of Christianity in the inner or new man, the soul of which is faith, and its effects the fruits of life.

Despite the controversy that this volume generated, a number of Lutheran pastors in Germany followed Spener’s example.

In 1686, Spener became a royal chaplain and was transferred to Dresden. He mentored a group of young theologians in Leipzig in a society he formed there for devout application and practice of biblical principles. Later, he ended up founding the University of Halle, which was based on pietistic theology. Not all went smoothly; a number of pastors in Leipzig opposed his pietism and made a stance for orthodox Lutheran doctrine and practice.

Spener died in 1705, but one of his followers from Leipzig and Halle, August Hermann Francke, helped to spread pietism throughout the northern half of Germany, which is still predominantly Lutheran. This enabled Spener’s godson, Count von Zinzendorf, to revive the Moravian Church in 1727 and to establish Protestant missions.

Wikipedia states:

Spener’s stress on the necessity of a new birth and on a separation of Christians from the world, (see Asceticism), led to exaggeration and fanaticism among some followers. Many Pietists soon maintained that the new birth must always be preceded by agonies of repentance, and that only a regenerated theologian could teach theology, while the whole school shunned all common worldly amusements, such as dancing, the theatre, and public games. Some would say that there thus arose a new form of justification by works.

Because pietism is so personal it became quite popular and began to weaken the state Church. It made its followers feel as if they were actively doing something to achieve their own salvation. In other words, it could be said that it was a form of Pelagianism. A reaction against pietism began in Dresden in the 18th century.

The state church — Lutheran — in Norway

Only a few decades after Spener’s death, the established church in Norway experienced problems with the spread of pietism.

Like England, they, too, issued a law proscribing small groups meeting outside the church. The government enacted the Conventicle Act of 1741.

Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771 – 1824) was born into a large farming family.  Like Spener, he, too, felt that pietism was necessary in order to transform the state church. Defying the Conventicle Act — and spending time in prison for doing so — he began preaching to Norwegians after Sunday church services.

Although he was a lay preacher, Hauge held revival meetings in Norway before taking his preaching into Denmark. Like many revivalists, he claimed to have had a mystical experience directing his ministry. He also wrote 33 books, which were widely read.

He said that his Haugean movement was in line with Lutheran doctrine. He also believed in Continuationism — active charismatic gifts (prophecy, glossolalia) — as do today’s American Pentecostalists.

After his final release from prison in 1811, he decided to return to farming and to also become an industrialist. He founded a number of factories and mills and donated his wealth to followers and friends. Because he was so influential as a lay minister, his secular success was almost guaranteed. Even today, Norwegians remember his help in making Norway a player in the Industrial Revolution. They also credit him with giving their country its ethical flavour of modesty, honesty and hard work.

Wikipedia states:

  • His defiance toward the religious and secular establishment gave voice to ordinary people, paving much of the way for the liberal and democratic tradition in Norway and indeed the entire Nordic region.
  • There also seems to be a clear link between the Haugean movement and the rise of Labor Union movement in Norway.
  • His theology, while bound in Lutheran doctrine, revitalized the notion of universal religion in Norway. The Norwegian state church credits him today for making religion a personal obligation.
  • His travels created nationwide networks that persist in Norway’s political system generally and among parties in particular.
  • His advocacy for common people became an important force as the industrial revolution unfolded.

Norwegian Lutherans who emigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries took his influence with them on religious and socio-political levels.  A case in point is the progressive state of Minnesota.

The Protestant churches in Prussia

As Hauge was defying the law in Norway, Prussia’s king, Frederick William III, urged the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) churches in that country to unite. In 1817, this united church body became known as the Prussian Union, or the Evangelical Christian Church.

Protestant history in Prussia is somewhat complex, because it was one of the nations which welcomed Calvinists fleeing the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe.  Although Prussia no longer exists as such, the Evangelical Christian Church lives on today in parts of Germany.

Wikipedia explains that this church union came about after Napoleon defeated the Prussian army in the battle of Jena-Auerstedt in the early 19th century. Prussia was obliged to undertake a number of state reforms, among them, the Church:

Under the influence of the centralising movement of absolutism and the Napoleonic Age, after the defeat of Napoléon I in 1815, rather than re-establishing the previous denominational leadership structures, all religious communities were placed under a single consistory in each Prussian province. This differed from the old structure in that the new leadership administered the affairs of all faiths; Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, and the Calvinists (Reformed Christians) …

On 27 September 1817, Frederick William announced that on the 300th anniversary of the Reformation Potsdam‘s Reformed court and garrison congregation, led by Court Preacher Rulemann Friedrich Eylert, and the Lutheran garrison congregation, both using the Calvinist Garrison Church would unite into one Evangelical Christian congregation on Reformation Day, 31 October. Frederick William expressed his desire to see the Protestant congregations around Prussia follow this example, and become Union congregations. Whereas, since the Reformation the two denominations in Brandenburg, the Calvinist and Lutheran, had their own ecclesiastical governments under state control through the crown as Supreme Governor, under the new absolutism then in vogue, the Churches were under a civil bureaucratic state supervision through the newly created Prussian Ministry of Religious, Educational and Medical Affairs (German: Preußisches Ministerium der geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medizinalangelegenheiten, est. in 1817). Karl vom Stein zum Altenstein was appointed as minister. However, because of the unique role of congregations in Protestantism, no congregation was forced by the King’s decree into merger. Thus, in the years that followed, many Lutheran and Reformed congregations did follow the example of Potsdam, and became single merged congregations, while others maintained their former Lutheran or Reformed denomination. When in 1847 Prussia finally received a parliament, some church leadership offices included a seat in the second chamber of non-elected, but appointed members.

As we would expect, not all Lutherans were pleased with this merger. Today’s Lutherans — and Calvinists — would appreciate the difference between the two denominations’ confessions of faith.

Wikipedia explains:

Pietism, with its looser attitude toward confessional theology, had opened the churches to the possibility of uniting. The unification of the two branches of German Protestantism sparked the Schism of the Old Lutherans. Many Lutherans, called Old Lutherans formed free churches or [e]migrated to the United States and Australia where they formed one of the bodies who formed the Lutheran Church of Australia. (Many immigrants to America that agreed with the union movement formed German Evangelical Lutheran and Reformed congregations, later to be gathered as the Evangelical Synod of North America, which is now a part of the United Church of Christ.)

And this is another reason why orthodox Protestants are opposed to pietism. They have seen the historical results of a ‘looser attitude toward confessional theology’: merger, dissatisfaction and confusion.

Pietism, the Enlightenment and atheism

Pietism peaked in the 18th century, although it is by no means extinct today.

However, because its emphasis on the individual appears to have lent it a certain popularity leading towards the examination of man in relation to himself, to others and to the world at large, it helped to enable the Enlightenment.

That said, it renewed religious fervour amongst European Protestants, which some emigrants took to America and Australia.  The laity found a new life within the Church and more of an active voice within established state churches.

Wikipedia explores this further:

Pietism also had a strong influence on contemporary artistic culture in Germany; though unread today, the Pietist Johann Georg Hamann held a strong influence in his day. Pietist belief in the power of individual meditation on the divine – a direct, individual approach to the ultimate spiritual reality of God – was probably partly responsible for the uniquely metaphysical, idealistic nature of German Romantic philosophy.

This has had a paradoxical effect on Christianity and secular politics which is present to this day. Clare Spark’s brilliant blog traces today’s Western multiculturalism back to the German Romantics:

The German Romantics and their descendants have co-opted radical Enlightenment concepts (tolerance, the rejection of innate ideas and fallen flesh as determinants of “human nature,” the cultural biases of the participant-observer) and practices (introspection, scientific materialism, the comparative history and analysis of political and economic institutions). These “enlightened” concepts and practices were then turned against “the lower orders.” For instance, the social psychology of “progressivism” transforms the common-sense perception of objective social conflicts and clashing interests into personal, anti-social symptoms of “xenophobia,” “prejudice” or “scapegoating,” i.e., distorted vision of “the Other.” Insofar as they are conservative Freudians and Jungians, the progressive psychologists attribute negative “stereotypes” to individual weakness and social irresponsibility: Entirely inner conflicts (Oedipal or pre-Oedipal in origin) are projected onto the outer world; this social world could be made harmonious through “integration”; i.e., discreet purges aka correct adjustments or through the emotionally mature recourse to administrative remedies.

Tying in with that is what I see as the nanny state dictating what we can(not) ingest — animal fats, nicotine and alcohol.  Most of today’s health experts and enabler politicians have no real religious faith, but they still have the Pelagian urge for manmade perfection, which pietism actively nurtures.

In fact, there is such a thing as Atheistic Pietism:

a term used by Asgeir Helgason to describe a pietistic (moralistic) approach to life without religion. “We have denied the existence of God but kept the pietistic rules”. Atheistic pietism has been suggested by Helgason,[4] to be one of the characteristics (traits) of the modern day Swedish national spirit. The term is first known to have been used by W.H. Mallock in 1879.

Wikipedia adds:

Economic historian Murray Rothbard sees modern Progressivism as essentially a deistic form of Pietism. [5]

Pietism has a lot to answer for in reviving Pelagianism, particularly the mantra heard continually throughout the West: ‘If only, if only, if only …’ we were healthier, younger, etc.

Whatever the shortcoming, pietism is there to point the finger at things which only God in His grace — not Man — can remedy.

Tomorrow: Pietism in Methodism

Dr Michael Horton is one of my favourite Calvinists. He brings the Bible and Church history to life time after time.

Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

What follows is an article he wrote for Modern Reformation in 1995 called ‘Pelagianism’.  This post concludes my series on Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, both of which are heresies.  Although I’ve explored these heresies over the past week, Horton adds new insights — both historical and current.

His article is well worth reading, particularly in light of today’s evangelicalism and popular thought. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

Cicero observed of his own civilization that people thank the gods for their material prosperity, but never for their virtue, for this is their own doing. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield considered Pelagianism “the rehabilitation of that heathen view of the world,” and concluded with characteristic clarity, “There are fundamentally only two doctrines of salvation: that salvation is from God, and that salvation is from ourselves. The former is the doctrine of common Christianity; the latter is the doctrine of universal heathenism.” (1)

But Warfield’s sharp criticisms are consistent with the witness of the church ever since Pelagius and his disciples championed the heresy. St. Jerome, the fourth century Latin father, called it “the heresy of Pythagoras and Zeno,” as in general paganism rested on the fundamental conviction that human beings have it within their power to save themselves

Last week, I explored the history of Pelagianism and how it played out in the life of the Church throughout the centuries.

However, Horton has more on how Pelagius countered Augustine and dug himself deeper into heresy.  Original sin — something which many modern Christians have difficulty accepting — comes into the picture:

Augustine taught that human beings, because they are born in original sin, are incapable of saving themselves. Apart from God’s grace, it is impossible for a person to obey or even to seek God. Representing the entire race, Adam sinned against God. This resulted in the total corruption of every human being since, so that our very wills are in bondage to our sinful condition. Only God’s grace, which he bestows freely as he pleases upon his elect, is credited with the salvation of human beings.

In sharp contrast, Pelagius was driven by moral concerns and his theology was calculated to provide the most fuel for moral and social improvement. Augustine’s emphasis on human helplessness and divine grace would surely paralyze the pursuit of moral improvement, since people could sin with impunity, fatalistically concluding, “I couldn’t help it; I’m a sinner.” So Pelagius countered by rejecting original sin. According to Pelagius, Adam was merely a bad example, not the father of our sinful condition-we are sinners because we sin-rather than vice versa. Consequently, of course, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, was a good example. Salvation is a matter chiefly of following Christ instead of Adam, rather than being transferred from the condemnation and corruption of Adam’s race and placed “in Christ,” clothed in his righteousness and made alive by his gracious gift. What men and women need is moral direction, not a new birth; therefore, Pelagius saw salvation in purely naturalistic terms-the progress of human nature from sinful behavior to holy behavior, by following the example of Christ.

Women following Oprah Winfrey’s Lifeclass have adopted a Pelagian point of view.  They would say that Christ presents mores and teachings for us to follow.  Outside of that, He does not redeem us — we can take care of that ourselves.

Horton lists the six tenets of Pelagianism which caused the Church to declare it a heresy.  These are worth examining carefully.  I have highlighted the ones most commonly believed today:

(1) Adam was created mortal and would have died whether he had sinned or not; (2) the sin of Adam injured himself alone, not the whole human race; (3) newborn children are in the same state in which Adam was before his fall; (4) neither by the death and sin of Adam does the whole human race die, nor will it rise because of the resurrection of Christ; (5) the law as well as the gospel offers entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven; and (6) even before the coming of Christ, there were men wholly without sin. (2) Further, Pelagius and his followers denied unconditional predestination.

After the Church councils repeatedly declared Pelagianism a heresy, Semi-Pelagianism began spreading. It

maintains that grace is necessary, but that the will is free by nature to choose whether to cooperate with the grace offered.

The Church — via the Council of Orange in 529 — condemned Semi-Pelagianism, including

those who thought that salvation could be conferred by the saying of a prayer, affirming instead (with abundant biblical references) that God must awaken the sinner and grant the gift of faith before a person can even seek God.

Therefore, the altar call prayer which some evangelical churches routinely employ could well be heretical depending on how it is used and presented.

Horton sums up why the Church considers Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism heresies:

Anything that falls short of acknowledging original sin, the bondage of the will, and the need for grace to even accept the gift of eternal life, much less to pursue righteousness …

Some people in the Bible were Pelagians.  Horton cites several examples:

Cain murdered Abel because Cain sought to offer God his own sacrifice. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Abel offered his sacrifice in anticipation of the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God, and did so by faith rather than by works (Heb. 11). However, Cain sought to be justified by his own works. When God accepted Abel instead, Cain became jealous. His hatred for Abel was probably due in part to his own hatred of God for refusing to accept his righteousness

At the Tower of Babel, the attitude expressed is clearly Pelagian: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves. ” In fact, they were certain that such a united human project could ensure that nothing would be impossible for them (Gen 11:4-6). But God came down, just as they were building upward toward the heavens. “So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city” (v.8). This is the pattern: God provides the sacrifice, and judges those who offer their own sacrifices to appease God. God comes down to dwell with us, we do not climb up to him; God finds us, we do not find him.

Jonah learned the hard way that God saves whomever he wants to save. Just as soon as he declared, “Salvation comes from the LORD,” we read: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (Jon 2:9-10).

The Pharisees believed that God had given them his grace by giving them the law, and if they merely followed the law and the traditions of the elders, they would remain in God’s favor. But Jesus said that they were unbelievers who needed to be regenerated, not good people who needed to be guided. “No man can even come to me unless my Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44), for we must be born again, “not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13). “Apart from me you can do nothing. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-fruit that will last” (Jn 15:5, 16).

[T]he Judaizing heresy that troubled the apostles was larger than the issue of Pelagianism, but self-righteousness and self-salvation lay at the bottom of it. As such, the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, was the first church council to actually condemn this heresy in the New Testament era.

Horton explains how Semi-Pelagianism gained popularity in the Church between the sixth and sixteenth centuries.  It may explain why St Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) had what some Protestants see as a Semi-Pelagian slant in his books:

the canons of the Council of Orange, which condemned Semi-Pelagianism, had been lost and were not recovered until after the closing of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

Furthermore, two hundred years before the Reformation and the Council of Trent, Pelagianism was still hotly debated. In England, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Bradwardine wrote of his own journey out of heretical thinking:

The archbishop’s own story gives us some insight to the place of this debate:

Idle and a fool in God’s wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error at the time when I was pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went to listen to the theologians discussing this matter [of grace and free will], and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth. In the philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or sins and much more along this line.”


Every time I listened to the Epistle reading in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will-as is the case in Romans 9, ‘It is obviously not a question of human will and effort, but of divine mercy,’ and its many parallels-grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was.”

But later, things changed:

However, even before I transferred to the faculty of theology, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and, captured by a vision of the truth, it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all good works with a temporal priority, God as Savior through predestination, and natural precedence. That is why I express my gratitude to Him who has given me this grace as a free gift.

Bradwardine begins his treatise, “The Pelagians now oppose our whole presentation of predestination and reprobation, attempting either to eliminate them completely or, at least, to show that they are dependent on personal merits.” (4)

If it was true then, it is still true today.  And it can be difficult to avoid getting caught up in it!  We’ll come to that in a moment.

Just before the Reformation began, an Augustinian revival was underway.  Martin Luther’s mentor Johann von Staupitz wrote On Man’s Eternal Predestination, which said in part:

God has covenanted to save the elect. Not only is Christ sent as a substitute for the believer’s sins, he also makes certain that this redemption is applied. This happens at the moment when the sinner’s eyes are opened again by the grace of God, so that he is able to know the true God by faith. Then his heart is set afire so that God becomes pleasing to him. Both of these are nothing but grace, and flow from the merits of Christ. Our works do not, nor can they, bring us to this state, since man’s nature is not capable of knowing or wanting or doing good. For this barren man God is sheer fear.

Staupitz, Horton points out, also believed in limited atonement. Staupitz wrote that the Crucifixion:

is sufficient for all, though it was not for all, but for many that his blood was poured out.

As we saw the other day, the Age of Enlightenment spread Pelagian ideas on a secular level which then crept back into the Church. Horton explains:

The rationalistic phase of liberalism saw religion not as a plan of salvation, but as a method of morality. The older views concerning human sinfulness and dependence on divine mercy were thought by modern theologians to stand in the way of the Enlightenment project of building a new world, a tower reaching to heaven, just as Pelagius viewed Augustinian teaching as impeding his project of moral reform …

This Pelagian spirit pervaded the frontier revivals as much as the New England academy. Although poets such as William Henley might put it in more sophisticated language (“I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul”), evangelicals out on the frontier began adapting this triumph of Pelagianism to the wider culture.

Along came Charles Finney, who did much to further this heresy in the 19th century. His twisted theology and enthusiasm (not a good thing theologically) live on today in many Evangelical circles.

Finney denied original sinAccording to Finney, we are all born morally neutral, capable either of choosing good or evil. Finney argues throughout by employing the same arguments as the German rationalists, and yet because he was such a successful revivalist and “soul-winner,” evangelicals call him their own. Finney held that our choices make us either good or sinful. Here Finney stands closer to the Pharisees than to Christ, who declared that the tree produced the fruit rather than vice versa. Finney’s denial of the substitutionary atonement follows this denial of original sin. After all, according to Pelagius, if Adam can be said to be our agent of condemnation for no other reason than that we follow his poor example, then Christ is said to be our agent of redemption because we follow his good example ...

Furthermore, Finney denies that regeneration depends on the supernatural gift of God. It is not a change produced from the outside. “If it were, sinners could not be required to effect it. No such change is needed, as the sinner has all the faculties and natural attributes requisite to render perfect obedience to God.”

Of the doctrine of justification, Finney declared it to be “another gospel,” since “for sinners to be forensically pronounced just, is impossible and absurd. As has already been said, there can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law…

Arminian revivalists preaching at the same time as Finney also furthered Pelagianism. Horton tells us:

Whenever it is maintained that an unbeliever is capable by nature of choosing God, or that men and women are capable of not sinning or of reaching a state of moral perfection, that’s Pelagianism. Finney even preached a sermon titled, “Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts.” When preachers attack those who insist that the human problem is sinfulness and the wickedness of the human heart-that’s Pelagianism. When one hears the argument, whether from the Enlightenment (Kant’s “ought implies can”), or from Wesley, Finney, or modern teachers, that “God would never have commanded the impossible,” (15) they are echoing the very words of Pelagius. Those who deny that faith is the gift of God are not merely Arminians or Semi-Pelagians, but Pelagians. Even the Council of Trent (condemning the reformers) anathematized such a denial as Pelagianism.

When evangelicals and fundamentalists assume that infants are pure until they reach an “age of accountability,” or that sin is something outside-in the world or in the sinful environment or in sinful company that corrupts the individual-they are practicing Pelagians.

Pelagianism is insidious — not only in the religious realm but in the secular world. The messages we receive about not smoking, not drinking, not overeating and not taking exercise play into what in Wesleyanism is called the ‘perfection’ or ‘holiness’ doctrine.  If only, if only, if only … we could achieve perfection, then we would have a utopia, or as one of Oprah’s Lifeclass students put it — borrowing the words of Eckhart Tolle — ‘a New Earth’.  No!

Horton says:

that which in our circles today is often considered “Arminianism” is really Pelagianism.

As to our inherent ‘goodness’ as human beings, today’s Evangelicals seem to line right up with Oprah’s Lifeclass students:

The fact that recent polls indicate that 77% of the evangelicals today believe that human beings are basically good and 84% of these conservative Protestants believe that in salvation “God helps those who help themselves” demonstrates incontrovertibly that contemporary Christianity is in a serious crisis. No longer can conservative, “Bible-believing” evangelicals smugly hurl insults at mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics for doctrinal treason. It is evangelicals today, every bit as much as anyone else, who have embraced the assumptions of the Pelagian heresy. It is this heresy that lies at the bottom of much of popular psychology (human nature, basically good, is warped by its environment), political crusades (we are going to bring about salvation and revival through this campaign), and evangelism and church growth (seeing conversion as a natural process, just like changing from one brand of soap to another, and seeing the evangelist or entrepreneurial pastor as the one who actually adds to the church those to be saved).

Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism are highly dangerous and, possibly, highly contagious, heresies. Pray for God’s grace that we may avoid them and discern them when we see them.  May He also grant us His grace to be able to point them out to our fellow Christians.

End of series

Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism are not just restricted to the Church.  Popular culture — especially New Age self-help — can also promote these heresies.

Oprah Winfrey has been a mainstay of television for two decades.  Although her show is no longer on network television, Winfrey’s OWN is on cable and continues with self-realisation classes and techniques.

A lot of women — and some men — have absorbed this powerful mixture of Pelagianism and Gnosticism (secret knowledge) to overcome the hurt in their lives.  I have no doubt that for the secular, unchurched viewer these courses have probably helped them improve their relationships and job prospects.

However, a number of Christians are also taking part in these remote courses. Personally, I believe they are doing this out of ignorance rather than what conservative pastors would term ‘rebellion’.

I would encourage prayers for these people — including Oprah — that the Holy Spirit infuses them with the understanding to see how unbiblical this way of thinking is.  Yes, it can happen, and I’ll have an ancient example to recount in my closing post on this heresy on Thursday evening, running through Friday.

For now, this is what popular Pelagianism looks like, as seen from comments on Oprah’s Lifeclass.  Emphases mine below.

This is how seduced people are by this false notion of self-determination:

Sat 11/19/2011 8:45 AM: … There are so many good lessons and messages that we can all learn from you Oprah. I have been evangelizing for you with family, friends and even strangers.

Wed 11/16/2011 3:50 PM: … Now if I could get my hands on the series in DVD format I would totally be in heaven.

Then, there is the error of believing one’s own ‘inner power’ effects transformation in oneself and others:

Wed 11/16/2011 6:59 AM: … These life lessons have always been, but Oprah ~ you helped make them more accessible ~ like a strong hand bending down the bough to reach the ripest fruit~ and I will savor each piece ~ and then I will plant the seeds~and watch them grow~ and bend the bough for someone else….

Tue 11/15/2011 3:53 PM: … oprahs life lessons not only allowed myself to forgive but understand i didnt do anything wrong i had just let myself go so long for everything else and my “self” hit me upside the head and said enough. i am now a better person more in tune with my world …

Tue 11/15/2011 3:38 PM: This show has awoken the person inside of me who has been trying to get out, but didn’t have the courage …

And the mistaken notion that we are good people at heart:

Fri 11/18/2011 3:35 PM: … I believe I have become a beautiful, strong and proud woman FINALLY! … Thank you for this class and making all of us people out here believe in ourselves! I absolutely love myself today!

Thu 11/17/2011 5:28 PM: … i could not help but allow my self to write these aformations: …
I live in a harmony with myself.
I see clearly where i am going where to put my next step …
I recognize the goodness that i have
I am grateful for my ability to love unconditionally and freely.
I am happy that my love flows equally to everyone
I love and respect myself first.
My actions are full of love and understanding.
I absolutely and completely trust the Universe,that supplies me with everything i need …
My actions resemble the purity of my soul
I see my existence as a powerful,beautiful and shiny energy and this energy is BLISS and LOVE.
I feel my body is transforming in to this perfect glittering light which is ecstasy and pure love.
Material energy is under my command …
I am in the highest state of existence.
I am purity and goodness.
I am well in every situation

Finally, the error that we fully control our own lives:


Fri 11/18/2011 10:52 AM: Today i woke up with clarity and decided to be the purpose I have been searching for and to live life intentionally with thought and to wake up and be present in my choices and what I allow in my life, instead of just floating thru and hoping for the best, allowing life to live me. If this helps even 1 person then it has accomplished its task.

Thu 11/17/2011 6:49 PM: I have decided to truly take charge of my destiny. My internal map is a organizer planner and I want to somehow contribute to making the world a better place …

However, Semi-Pelagianism also appears.  This can be even more insidious and difficult to talk someone out of. Although we would be correct in questioning the Christianity of those quoted below, it is highly probable that a number of Oprah’s viewers are regular churchgoers. I was when I dabbled in New Age thinking (no Oprah, though):

Sat 11/19/2011 11:36 AM: If I keep on doing what I am doing I am going to keep geting what I am getting. The first thing I did was to stop the self abuse and tried to get more positive feelings into my life. I started this with going to church and reading ‘The Secret’ and listened to other peoples stories. After I watched one of Oprah’s lifeclasses something came together for me. I realised that I had to rediscover myself

Fri 11/18/2011 2:45 PM: … I am praying. I am writing my prayers; I am singing my prayers … knowing that Something Greater than we are expresses through us, and, by allowing it to do so, our experience changes.

Tue 11/15/2011 5:35 PM: … I believe in all that is said, maybe from reading Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” and that I believe you do get back what you give. The OWN network is all I have ever dreamed of in what mass media should protray. I believe in the goodness of people and if the media would display to us all the wonderful things people do for each other every day, instead of the horror on this earth, we would have a New Earth. I, too start each day with reading from an inspirational book, a prayer to our creator

Mon 11/14/2011 1:18 AM: I believe everybody starts out having a dream, but some faint along the way!! Galatians 6:9 says, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” I agree that we’ve always had the power to be, receive and do anything we can dream in life – it’s just a matter of continuing!!! … For when GOD’s plan is put into motion, nobody can stop it!!! I’m a living witness that we can achieve what we can dream!! We should never be finished dreaming!!! Once we finish one dream, we definitely should be dreaming bigger dreams – as long as we have breath!! Some of my dreams haven’t came to pass yet, but I rest on Galatians 6:9 daily!! I can recall being led to study Psalm 27:14 for a week, during a very crucial point in my life!! I was compelled to Wait on the LORD …!!! I wouldn’t take anything for my journey!!! I KNOW that it’s no coincidence that I’m alive in this lifetime with you Oprah!! We are the same age and what you have been teaching along the way – I had to learn, to get me to where I need to be!!! Thank you Oprah, from the bottom of my heart!!!

Let’s pray for these women, who have been drawn into this heady mix of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism and Gnosticism instead of humbly praying for God’s help.

As for Oprah, what wonderful work she could do in the Lord’s name, if she were a true Christian. I pray that she has a Damascene conversion and repents.  I pray that He leads her to read the Bible along with the Augsburg Confessions or the Westminster Confessions of Faith.  I pray that one day she comes to openly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and realises that we can accomplish nothing without God’s grace.

Thursday/Friday: Concluding the series with Dr Michael Horton on Pelagianism

Yesterday’s post examined the heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.  Well worth a read before you have a look at this entry on people — religious and secular — who believed either that man was completely dead spiritually (non-heretics) or that man was well enough spiritually to rely on himself (Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians).

Whether you agree or disagree with the findings, The Jeremiah Project’s ‘The Nature of Man’ is a fascinating look at the great minds throughout history from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Here are just a couple of excerpts from the religious realm to ponder. Yesterday’s post referred to the theological disagreement between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus in the former’s Bondage of the Will.  As The Jeremiah Project notes:

This “vital spot” to which Luther refers was the biblical truth concerning man’s lost and sin-bound condition in contrast to any and all forms of Pelagian heresy. Luther was convinced that this doctrine was vital to the truth of the Gospel, and that its absence had formed the seedbed for various types of pseudo-Christianity.

However, post-Reformation:

Where Luther triumphed in the sixteenth century, subsequent generations gave the nod to Erasmus.

Shortly before John Calvin died, Jacob Arminius was born.  Although Arminius was raised as a Dutch Calvinist

Arminius came to the conclusion that some of Calvin’s tenets were indefensible. However, in rejecting the excesses of Calvinism, and in the attempt to construct his own scheme of beliefs, Arminius drew upon both Semi-Pelagianism and the Bible to create a new theological hybrid–subsequently dubbed “Arminianism.”

He sought to create a consistent interpretation of the Christian religion without forfeiting the free will foundation. According to his theory, man’s will was once hindered, but God restores to all men adequate freedom (free will) so that they can determine their own destiny. As a synthesis of humanistic Semi-Pelagianism and the Bible, Arminianism insists that any movement toward God is man’s ultimate decision, and that God simply acts in light of that decision. Consequently, man is sovereign!

This makes ‘assurance’ of one’s salvation somewhat complicated if it rests on us to continually ‘do better’ through works-based salvation.  This befalls not only newer Protestant denominations but the Catholic Church.  It gives birth to varying forms and degrees of legalism.

Unconditional eternal security grounded upon the fact of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ is utterly rejected by the Arminian. He sedulously avoids all portions of the Bible that establish eternal security, or at best seeks to discredit and deny them. He gravitates to out-of-context verses that seem to him to militate against the truth of “once saved, always saved.”

The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to Deism, which influenced the new ‘churches’ of Unitarianism and Universalism:

Nature and right reason replaced the NT as the primary source of religious authority, and what authority the Scriptures retained was the result of their agreement with the findings of reason.

Unitarianism came to New England as early as 1710, and by 1750 most of the Congregational ministers in and around Boston had ceased to regard the doctrine of the Trinity as an essential Christian belief.

Around the same time, the Anglican John Wesley

embraced and incorporated both Arminianism and the spirit of the Enlightenment into his Wesleyan movement–Methodism …

Although free will is an issue, in many respects Calvinism and Wesleyism is not far apart. Wesley stated that he and Calvin were but a hair’s breadth apart on justification. Sanctification, not free will, draws the clearest line of distinction.

America’s Second Great Awakening (1795-1830)

encouraged a revivalistic, aggressive, democratic theology that shaped all American Protestantism through the 1870’s, provided one of the major sources of fundamentalism, and contributed an enduring legacy to modern evangelicalism.

Under the libertarian influences of the Revolutionary age individual Christians insisted that the Bible and the Bible only, free from traditional interpretations, was the standard for organizing churches. So it was that following the Bible only, Disciples, Free Will Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists, Universalists, “Christians,” and other new groups employed private interpretations of Scripture to break from historical denominations and start their own.

During this period, two evangelists would help shape American Evangelicalism.  One was Nathaniel Taylor (1786-1858):

Taylor and the leading revivalists on the frontier tended to stress more the ability which God had bestowed on all people to come to Christ. The will was an independent arbiter which chose among options presented to it by the mind and the emotions.

The other was Charles Finney (1792-1895) — emphases in the original:

The Positive Thinking Movement can be traced back to the revivalism of Finney, whose emphasis on the human element in conversion and the ability of men to create revivals. Between 1824 and 1832, Finney established the modern forms and methods of revivalism in America.

In the secular world at this time, the English Romantics had taken centre stage, having rejected God for sensory experiences.  The United States had the New England Transcendentalists — Emerson and Thoreau, among them.  Generally speaking:

Nature began to be regarded as somehow divine. It was a tabloid for the sacred experience. Pantheism crept in. By the time the first translations of Hindu and Buddhist texts were made in the nineteenth century, there was an immediate influence on Western minds. Walt Whitman applauded these new mystical breakthroughs in his celebrated poem “Song of Myself.” Whitman announced to the world: “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from.”

Combine that with Finney’s ‘positive thinking’ and you can see where these ideas were going in the popular imagination as well as in church:

Transcendentalism helped spawn what became known as New Thought, which emphasized that thought controls everything. Now called Positive Thinking, Possibility Thinking, Positive Confession, Positive Mental Attitude, and Inner Healing, this New Thought is sweeping today’s church. New Thought became the basis for such cults as Christian Science, Religious Science, and Unity ...

Transcendentalism marked the first substantial attempt in American history to retain the spiritual experience and potential of the Christian faith without any of the substance of its belief. By claiming an essential innocence for man, by substituting a direct intuition of God or truth for any form of revelation, and by foreseeing a future of ill-defined but certain glory for humankind, transcendentalism paved the way for the many romantic notions about human nature and destiny that have become such a central part of the American experience in the last hundred years.

Back to American Christianity and we see that the 19th century was a time of further new denominations which were breaking away from Methodism:

Both the Nineteenth century Holiness movement (e.g. Nazarene denomination) and the Twentieth century Pentecostal movement find their roots in Methodism. Pentecostal historian, Vinson Synan, succinctly described the relationship as follows:

Although the Pentecostal movement began in the United States, itself a significant fact, its theological and intellectual origins were British. The basic premises of the movement’s theology were constructed by John Wesley in the Eighteenth century. As a product of Methodism, the holiness-Pentecostal movement traces its lin[e]age through the Wesleys to Anglicanism and from thence to Roman Catholicism. This theological heritage places the Pentecostals outside the Calvinistic, Reformed tradition which culminated in the Baptist and Presbyterian movements in the United States. The basic Pentecostal theological position might be described as Arminian, perfectionistic, premillennial, and charismatic.

These churches rely on works-based and/or experiential salvation.  Even today, people leaving Charismatic or Pentecostal churches report that they were ostracised if they could not speak in tongues.  Other members of the congregation told them they lacked adequate faith, otherwise they would be able to experience the Holy Spirit moving through them. A dangerous thing to say.

The idea of personal perfection of the individual as part of a larger group also manifested itself in the temperance movement of the late 19th century.  This was also the time when the social gospel began to appear, influenced by Marxist thought and its related socio-political groups or movements — the Fabians in England and the Progressives in the United States.  Both worked towards a utopian ideal — impossible because of the fallen state of mankind.

The Mormons were a growing sect in the United States at this time.  They, too, operate on a pietistic level, with much dietary restriction and personal dos-and-don’ts holiness.  They took Psalm 82:6

I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.

to a new level.  John MacArthur explains that this verse refers to the Old Testament judges appointed in God’s name to rule over Israel — not everyone!

The Jeremiah Project says of the Mormons:

The Mormon church claims that men now living can also attain godhood. The Doctrine & Covenants says of those who obey the laws of Mormonism, “Then shall they be gods” (Section 132:20). The late Elder James Talmage declared, “In spite of the opposition of the sects, in the face of direct charges of blasphemy, the church proclaims the eternal truth: ‘As man is, God once was; as God is, man may be”’ (Articles of Faith, pf 430). According to Brighman Young, “the Lord created you and me for the purpose of becoming Gods like Himself… We are created, we are born…to become Gods like unto our Father in heaven” (Journal of Discourses, Vol.3,pg.93).

In the first half of the 20th century, groups of conservative Protestants wished to see a return to Bible-based thinking.  Harry Ironside of the Plymouth Brethren was at the nucleus of this network.  He also helped to promote dispensationalism (the Rapture).

The Jeremiah Project explains:

A Plymouth Brethren, author and preacher known for his lively style and clear-cut interpretations, [Ironside] was at the center of the fundamentalist network from 1930-1948, when he became the final authority on fundamentalist teaching …

Evangelical Protestants rallied around fundamental doctrines of the faith. The issuance of The Fundamentals, a series of books defending traditional Christian teachings gave Evangelicals a new name, Fundamentalists ...

Many enemies of Christianity were identified: Romanism, socialism, modern philosophy, atheism, Eddyism, Mormonism, spiritualism, and the like, but above all liberal theology, which rested on a naturalistic interpretation of the doctrine of faith, and German higher criticism and Darwinism, which appeared to undermine the Bible’s authority. Almost immediately, the list of enemies became narrower and the fundamentals less comprehensive. Five essential doctrines were regarded as under attack in the church: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and the historicity of the miracles. These came to be regarded as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

After the Second World War, however:

There were those who voluntarily continued to use the term to refer to themselves and to equate it with true Bible-believing Christianity. There were others who came to regard the term as undesirable, having connotations of divisive, intolerant, anti-intellectual, unconcerned with social problems, even foolish. This group wished to regain fellowship with the orthodox Protestants and people in the large northern denominations – Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian.

In the 1960s, Hinduism and Buddhism held an attraction for many, popularised by the Beatles, and subsequently followed by groups of university students. At a time when the Viet Nam War was roundly criticised, the idea of contemplative attainment of self along with non-violence seduced a number of Westerners.

This, too — combined with left-wing political movements — affected the churches:

Righteous indignation and holy zeal became all but endangered species during much of the century. Passions were turned inward, as were devotions. Virtues became vices, and the most awful of indulgences became canonized orthodoxies. Risk, jeopardy, and self-sacrifice were replaced by security, certainty, and self-gratification. Thus, the only urgency that drove much of the church during this dark period in history was its own satisfaction. An easy “instant-everything” mentality developed so that believers would not have to face up to their responsibilities or live with the consequences of their actions.

For several hundred years, predestination has been the majority while free will remained the minority. In this century, more and more theologians suggested another theory of God’s will: God is no longer to be understood as an immutable monarch controlling human history and individual lives, but rather is to be seen as a self-limiting, loving, and suffering father who allows himself to be affected by his creatures (e.g. Hans Kung, T[eilhard de] Chardin, John Cobb, David Griffin, Clark Pinnock).

Modern descendants of the Finney school of thought — Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller among them, with their notions of unleashing the inner person through positive thinking — appealed to the middle classes.  Late 20th century man focussed on himself and less on God, if at all.  The influence of Eastern religions made God into a concept rather than Creator. Recreational drugs allowed people a further escape into themselves, a heightened ‘personal’ and ‘pleasurable’ experience.

Meditation and therapy became commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s.  Have a problem? Try meditation.  Still having problems?  Get some therapy. Many Christians advocated both.

New Age therapies and techniques took off around the same time, gathering disaffected and the unchurched looking for a ‘peaceful’, ‘calming’ way of life.  Combining psychology and aspects of Theosophy as well as a fondness for things with notionally curative powers — e.g. crystals — the New Age movement has attracted many, including Christians.

The Jeremiah Project summarises our current outlook:

No one is willfully doing evil; we are all innocent victims of a disease for which we cannot be held accountable. A plague of “poor self-concept” is sweeping our world and that is the cause of all that has gone wrong …

What does self-esteem mean to humansists? It does not mean a healthy appraisal of one’s abilities and talents, which many mistakenly believe. In the realm of personal psychology, self-esteem means being one’s own person, developing one’s own values apart from the values of others, expecially the values of one’s parents. It’s not a matter of semantics; the term self-esteem means lover of one’s self. The only outcome of such a philosophy is a generation of selfish, defiant and rebellious people who put themselves before others. They have learned that they are worthy of self-esteem regardless of their behavior. Shirley MacLaine proclaims, “You must never worship anyone or anything other than self. For you are god. To love self is to love god.”

That is a relatively recent example of Pelagianism.

There’s much more to read at the link. At the very end are the American Presidential hopefuls ranked according to whether they are Augustinians, Semi-Pelagians or Pelagians!  See where your favourite stands.

Amazingly, a number of Christians believe that man is part divine.  Perhaps they have misunderstood being created in God’s image — imago Dei.

Imago Dei

What does it mean to be created in God’s image?  This is a complex theological question and this post is not meant to explore the subject in full.  It would appear as if today’s Pelagianism — which we’ll come to in a moment — emerges from a) a difference in interpretation of Genesis and salvation in Christ and b) syncretism with ideas from the Enlightenment, Eastern religions and New Age ‘philosophies’ — all of which rely on some sort of gnosis (secret knowledge).

‘Personhood and the Imago Dei’ provides this definition (emphases mine):

When God created Mankind he imparted a similar attribute of Personhood. Genesis 1:26-27 says, “Then God said,“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV) …

The attribute of “representation” separates all human life from the rest of God’s creation. This state of being “set apart”, derived from the Hebrew word qadosh, is many times translated in our English bibles as “holy”, “sacred” or “sanctified”. From this concept we derive the term “sanctity of life.” While it is true that this difference with the rest of the animal kingdom is not absolute, it is also true that we are much more like God than all the rest of creation.This concept forms the foundation of human dignity and respect for human life throughout Western civilization and history.

“Imago Dei” is Latin for the “image of God.” To be created imago Dei means being endowed with a body, soul and an spirit, (1 Thess. 5:23)  a capacity to know and be known by God and a measure of autonomy and free will in the areas of thought and action that allow us to serve His purposes and glorify Him. Mankind’s rebellion corrupted His Image.

After the Fall, God’s Image in humanity was distorted by sin, but NOT lost.

eNotes’s article ‘Imago Dei’ summarises the interpretation from the Reformation to our modern day:

In the wake of the Reformation, the image of God came to be reinterpreted along two primary lines. The first, following Martin Luther (1483–1546), interpreted the image of God primarily in terms of human relationality with God, a move followed especially by Karl Barth (1886–1968) and the neo-orthodox movement. The second followed the dominant philosophical interpretations of human nature in the Enlightenment and after. Particularly after Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the image of God has often been seen in the human capacity for self-consciousness.

Many modern theologians continue to be influenced by one of these two strands of thought. The chief influence of the sciences has been to emphasize human continuity with nature, either because of humankind’s evolutionary heritage or because of humankind’s increased knowledge of the animal world. For this and other reasons, theologians such as Langdon Gilkey (1919–) and Gregory Peterson (1966–) have argued that all of nature should be understood as being in the image of God. Nevertheless, interpretation of the image of God continues to be dynamic, and will no doubt be increasingly influenced by both scientific perspectives and inter-religious dialogue.

And that is part of the problem, because we can begin straying even deeper into heresies, pantheism, in particular.

Then, we have the Eastern Orthodox interpretation, which seems to say that Christ restored our full humanity, lost in the Fall of Adam and Eve.  Christians moving from Anglicanism towards Orthodox churches are adopting this belief, at least in part:

in Christ there was a restoration of the true human nature, not an external addition of “grace” to an otherwise autonomous human existence.  Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again …

This Eastern Christian understanding of communion or union with God connotes a true union which, like the appearance of Christ on Mt. Tabor, transfigures and deifies our human nature.  In one of the most succinct and explicit articulations of this doctrine, known as theosis (deification),[71] Athanasius declared, “He [the Logos] became man that we might be deified” …

The doctrine of deification is a direct consequence of an incarnational, hence ontological, soteriology.  Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment … 

So, I guess this is part of the reason why a number of British Christians believe we have a divine nature.  Also from the same article:

… the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification.  God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins.  His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword.  The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality.

And, this is because:

 … the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.  Sola scriptura means little to the Orthodox

There is a fundamental difference between the way the Eastern Orthodox churches and Catholic / Protestant churches interpret the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  This then leads towards a difference of understanding of justification by faith and Pelagianism:

Thus, neither the Lutheran nor the Roman Catholic understanding of justification includes a truly human component.  The negative anthropology of both negates human freedom because it excludes an inherent desire for and ability to turn toward God in humanity’s fallen condition.  Consequently, the Christian West, following Augustine, developed the idea of prevenient grace:  a human being can only turn toward God after God has first imparted to him or her a special grace which allows the person to recognize and respond to God.  If one also hypothesizes that God may not choose to bestow this prevenient grace on all human beings, then one comes naturally to the theory of election or predestination present in Augustine’s later anti-Pelagian works and resurrected full force in the Reformed Protestantism of Calvin as well as in such branches of Lutheranism as the Missouri Synod.

So, I can see now why I and other Protestants would not be able to understand those of an Eastern Orthodox mindset.  I have found some perspectives on this and other blogs perplexing and can only conclude that if they are coming from someone who refers to themselves as Christian, then there must be at least a tinge of Eastern Orthodox theology informing them.

Any Anglican who becomes Eastern Orthodox is relinquishing a Protestant outlook in favour of a very different theology. For those considering such a move — and some in Britain are — they should examine this question seriously before conversion.  Furthermore, we Anglicans should watch the ecumenical direction our church hierarchy takes with the Eastern Orthodox.  Absorbing certain aspects of their theology into Anglicanism would clearly go against the 39 Articles of Religion.  And, perhaps, the fact that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is rarely available in our churches is a convenient way to make Anglicanism ‘anything we want it to be’.  For those who are unaware of it, the 39 Articles are in every copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which used to be regularly available in the pews.

Who was Pelagius?

Wikipedia has a worthwhile entry on Pelagius.  No prizes for guessing that he was British.

Pelagius was born about 354. While his exact birthplace is not known, the Encyclopedia of World Biography states that “widespread evidence indicates that he came originally from the British Isles“, although a few sources suggest he may have been born in Brittany in modern France. He was a Culdee Monk and wore the moon shaped tonsure of that ascetic Celtic Johannine Christian Order. He became better known c. 380 when he moved to Rome to write and teach about his ascetic practices.


In Rome, Pelagius became concerned about the moral laxity of society. He blamed this laxity on the theology of divine grace preached by Augustine, among others.

Around 405, it is said that Pelagius heard a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions: “Give me what you command and command what you will”. This verse concerned Pelagius because it seemed that Augustine was teaching doctrine contrary to traditional Christian understandings of grace and free will, turning man into a mere automaton.

When Alaric sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius and his close follower Caelestius fled to Carthage where he continued his work and briefly encountered St. Augustine in person. He is subsequently in the Holy Land as late as 418 …

He probably died in Palestine around 420, as reported by some. Others mention him living as many as twenty years later.  The cause of his death is unknown.

His death did not end his teachings, although those who followed him may have modified those teachings. Because little information remains with regard to Pelagius’ actual teachings, it is possible that some of his doctrines were subject to revision and suppression by his enemies (followers of Augustine and the Church leadership as a whole at that time).

Belief in Pelagianism and Semipelagianism was common for the next few centuries, especially in Britain, the Holy Land and North Africa.

It never really died out.  This same article states that efforts are underway to cleanse Pelagius’s ruined reputation. Try not to buy into this revisionism, which works against the Church and Scripture.

What is Pelagianism?

CARM’s Matt Slick has an easy-to-understand definition of Pelagianism:

Pelagianism teaches that man’s nature is basically good.  Thus it denies original sin, the doctrine that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam.  He said that Adam only hurt himself when he fell and all of his descendents were not affected by Adam’s sin.  Pelagius taught that a person is born with the same purity and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God.  He taught that people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and rational thought.  God’s grace, then, is merely an aid to help individuals come to Him

Pelagius has been condemned by many councils throughout church history including the following:

  • Councils of Carthage (412, 416 and 418)
  • Council of Ephesus (431)
  • The Council of Orange (529)
  • Council of Trent (1546) Roman Catholic
  • 2nd Helvetic (1561/66) 8-9. (Swiss-German Reformed)
  • Augsburg Confession (1530) Art. 9, 18 (Lutheran)
  • Gallican Confession (1559) Art. 10 (French Reformed)
  • Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 15 (Lowlands, French/Dutch/German Reformed)
  • The Anglican Articles (1571), 9. (English)
  • Canons of Dort (1618-9), 3/4.2 (Dutch/German/French Reformed).

Applied Pelagianism at the time – Julian of Eclanum

By the time Pelagius was nearing the end of his life, Julian of Eclanum was a bishop in Italy.  He refused to subscribe to a renewed condemnation of Pelagianism by Pope Zosimus.  As a result, he was removed from his bishopric and, by edict of Emperor Honorius, sent into exile in 418.

Julian travelled to Cilicia — now southern Anatolia in Turkey — where he stayed for a time with Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia, who had also been charged as being guilty of Pelagianism. Theodore belonged to the school of Antioch — part of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Theodore later declared Julian anathema in a provincial synod.

Julian tried unsuccessfully to return to Rome and probably spent time in Ephesus.  He died in Sicily in 454 and was condemned by the Church again posthumously in 484.

During his lifetime, Julian waged a war of words with Augustine of Hippo.  The excerpts below are from Wikipedia and appear alarmingly modern.  A few readers might possibly agree with Julian’s Pelagianism, seen below in a summary of his Pelagianism.  If you read the Wikipedia points in full, note how careful Julian was to still position himself as being within Church teachings — which is what a heretic does:

Sin and will: Some Pelagians denied that the original sin of Adam was transmitted to all humans at birth. Babies, therefore, need not be baptized: they are born innocent. Adult baptism does remit sins, but for the Pelagian, this meant that the baptized Christian, after this dramatic fresh start, was now free to perfect himself alone, with or without the aid of the Church … Pelagians viewed sin as a matter of will and not of nature, as a choice that can be reversed. Strengthened by baptism, everyone possesses enough self-control to reject evil. (In this, Pelagians drew on pagan Stoicism.) For Augustine, such optimism was dangerously naive: human will is caught in a dark internal labyrinth of untamable compulsions. No one is strong enough to save himself without God’s grace and the sacraments of the Church.

The equity of God: Julian drew on the Jewish equation of divinity and law. For him, our concept of law as something rational, sensible, and proportionate is divine in origin, and mirrors the attributes of God himself. An unjust God is inconceivable as God. For Pelagians, God would not condemn every human because of one sin committed by Adam; God would not condemn to infinite torment those whose sins were finite or who had simply never heard of Christ (again, Pelagius appears to have felt differently in some of his framents, as he claimed baptism was required for salvation for anyone). Augustine dismissed such notions of justice as too fallible to be attributed to God, whose ways are inscrutablePelagians rejected predestination as incompatible with the freedom of each person to effect his own salvation

Sexuality: As [Peter] Brown puts it, “Julian spoke boldly of the sexual instinct as a sixth sense of the body, as a [morally] neutral energy that might be used well…delicately poised between reason and animal feeling.”  Augustine, after more than 13 years of fornicating with prostitutes and concubines, considered all non-procreative sex sinful (and said that the feelings of arousal that accompanied procreative sex were evil and were the cause of the transmission of original sin), and human sexuality itself a debilitating curse. Julian scorned this as hypocrisy, and instead said “We say that the sexual impulse—that is, that the virility itself, without which there can be no intercourse—is ordained by God.”

Social reform: Julian’s Pelagianism was a purifying reform movement that sought to inspire morally perfected Christians to remake Roman society from the inside out, countering its brutality and injustice.

Biblical verses against Pelagianism

Any Christian familiar with the Bible will be able to come up with a selection of verses which refute Pelagianism.

However, there are many Christians around the world who state error or heresy as ‘truth’ because they are unfamiliar with the Bible, either out of ignorance or wilfulness.  Christianity is not what our favourite author says it is, nor is it what we would like it to be.

CARM offers us the following verses which clearly state man’s sinful nature:

Pelagianism fails to understand man’s nature and weakness.  We are by nature sinners (Eph. 2:3; Psalm 51:5).  We all have sinned because sin entered the world through Adam:  “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Rom. 5:12, NIV).  Furthermore, Romans 3:10-12 says, There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”  Therefore, we are unable to do God’s will (Rom. 6:16; 7:14).  We were affected by the fall of Adam, contrary to what Pelagius taught.


The Calvinist minister and theologian, R C Sproul, has an excellent article, ‘Augustine and Pelagius’, which is well worth reading.

In it he also discusses semi-Pelagianism, another heresy, and something most of us need reminding of, particularly in today’s Church:

Humanism, in all its subtle forms, recapitulates the unvarnished Pelagianism against which Augustine struggled. Though Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by Rome, and its modified form, Semi-Pelagianism was likewise condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, the basic assumptions of this view persisted throughout church history to reappear in Medieval Catholicism, Renaissance Humanism, Socinianism, Arminianism, and modern Liberalism. The seminal thought of Pelagius survives today not as a trace or tangential influence but is pervasive in the modern church. Indeed, the modern church is held captive by it.

It is easy to slip into this heresy, as Sproul explains:

Semi-Pelagianism does have a doctrine of original sin whereby mankind is considered fallen …

However, in Semi-Pelagianism there remains a moral ability within man that is unaffected by the Fall. We call this an “island of righteousness” by which the fallen sinner still has the inherent ability to incline or move himself to cooperate with God’s grace. Grace is necessary but not necessarily effective. Its effect always depends upon the sinner’s cooperation with it by virtue of the exercise of the will …

It is not by accident that Martin Luther considered “The Bondage of the Will” to be his most important book. He saw in Erasmus a man who, despite his protests to the contrary, was a Pelagian in Catholic clothing. Luther saw that lurking beneath the controversy of merit and grace, and faith and works was the issue of to what degree the human will is enslaved by sin and to what degree we are dependent upon grace for our liberation. Luther argued from the Bible that the flesh profits nothing and that this “nothing” is not a little “something.”

Modern evangelicals repudiate unvarnished Pelagianism and frequently Semi-Pelagianism as well. It is insisted that grace is necessary for salvation and that man is fallen. The will is acknowledged to be severely weakened even to the point of being “99 percent” dependent upon grace for its liberation. But that one percent of unaffected moral ability or spiritual power which becomes the decisive difference between salvation and perdition is the link that preserves the chain to Pelagius. We have not broken free from the Pelagian captivity of the church.

That one percent is the “little something” Luther sought to demolish because it removes the sola from sola gratia and ultimately the sola from sola fide.

Because so few of us in the first Protestant churches — Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican (especially the last) — understand our core beliefs, it is easy to let the ‘little something’ slip in.

If more clergymen preached the Bible instead of popular topics, we would be stronger Christians.  Becoming Closer Adult Bible Fellowship says:

  1. We no longer teach or preach exegetically, but topically. The Scripture is now a secondary source of teaching. Our students, therefore, have come to see the Scriptures as mere footnotes.
  2. Consequently, the Scriptures are no longer honored in the church. Those of sufficient antiquity will recall a time when most churches had two pulpits, so that when the Scripture was read, the listener understood its solemn import. In some churches one pulpit was reserved for the Scriptures alone.
  3. The anti-intellectual bias of our time (in the churches) means that age and scholarship have been discarded in favor of the “bold new idea.” Interestingly, that idea is often brought forward with the idea that we should believe it not because it is true, but because it’s the only way the church can survive. (No sense of history, either.)
  4. We now have Christians who no longer consciously follow Christ, or try to grow in him – but rather follow their feelings.

Tomorrow: Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism through history to the present day

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