Pelagianism: The Calvinist’s Boogie Man

If I had a dollar for every time I was accused of being a “Pelagian” or “Semi-Pelagian,” I’d have at least enough money to put my eldest through college.

Typically, the accusation comes from those who are less informed about the historical use of these labels and there actual meanings as it relates to our current soteriological disagreements.[1] So, let’s get educated.

Pelagius was a 5th century British monk who was accused of teaching that people had the natural ability to fulfill the commands of God by an exercise of the human will apart from divine assistance (grace). Pelagianism came to be known as the belief that mankind is born basically good, without a sinful nature, and is thus capable of doing good without God’s help. [2]

Because Pelagius was deemed a heretic, little of his work survived to the present day except in the quotes of his opponents (not the most reliable of sources). Many modern scholars suspect that Pelagius’ actual teachings were greatly misrepresented so as to demonize and marginalize him (this is not difficult to imagine).

Despite what is commonly known of Pelagius, evidence indicates that he and his followers taught that all good works come only by divine aid (grace), which was seen as “enabling,” not “effectual/irresistible” in nature. For instance, in a letter to the Pope defending himself, Pelagius is reported to have written:

“This grace we for our part do not, as you suppose, allow to consist merely in the law, but also in the help of God. God helps us by His teaching and revelation, whilst He opens the eyes of our heart; whilst He points out to us the future, that we may not be absorbed in the present; whilst He discovers to us the snares of the devil; whilst He enlightens us with the manifold and ineffable gift of heavenly grace… This free will is in all good works always assisted by divine help.” [3]

And in an accompanying confession of faith, he states, “Free-will we do so own, as to say that we always stand in need of God’s help,” And he affirmed, “We do also abhor the blasphemy of those who say that any impossible thing is commanded to man by God; or that the commandments of God cannot be performed by any one man.” So, while Pelagius maintained human responsibility to keep the commands of God he still seemed to maintain the need of divine aid in doing so.[4]

Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius, was the first on record to teach the concept of individual effectual election to salvation. Even Calvinistic historian Loraine Boettner concedes that this “was first clearly seen by Augustine” in the fifth century. In fact, Boettner notes, not only did the earliest Church Fathers not interpret the doctrine of election “Calvinistically,” but much of their teaching stands in strong opposition to such conclusions. A great emphasis on the absolute freedom of the human will and repudiations of individual predestination to salvation is found clearly throughout the earliest writings of the church. [5] John Calvin himself acknowledged this fact when he stated:

“Further, even though the Greeks [Early Church Fathers] above the rest—and Chrysostom especially among them—extol the ability of the human will, yet all the ancients, save Augustine, so differ, waver, or speak confusedly on this subject, that almost nothing certain can be derived from their writings.”[6]

So, by Calvinists own admission, Augustine introduced much of these unique (and often controversial) doctrinal beliefs in the 5th century.[7]

Pelagius stood up against Augustine’s new doctrinal positions and even went so far as to accuse him of being under the influence of his former Manichean (Gnostic) roots, which was known to teach pagan fatalism as if it were a Christian doctrine.[8] Augustine, in turn, accused Pelagius of denying any need for divine aid in the conversion process. It is likely that both of them went too far in their accusations, but history reveals that it was Augustine’s smears of Pelagius that won over in the court of public opinion.[9]

Pelagianism, therefore, has become known historically as “the teaching that man has the capacity to seek God in and of himself apart from any movement of God or the Holy Spirit, and therefore that salvation is effected by man’s efforts.”[10]

Traditionalists, like myself, wholeheartedly deny this belief and consider the label offensive and completely misrepresentative of our actual teachings (and I’m under the impression Pelagius himself would express similar sentiments if given a fair hearing today).

Here are a few reasons why this label would not rightly represent our views:

  • We believe man has the capacity to respond willingly to God’s means of seeking to save the lost, NOT that man would seek God if left alone.
  • We believe our gracious God is actively working in and through creation, conscience, His bride, His Holy Spirit filled followers, and his Word to aid humanity in their conversion.
  • We believe salvation is wholly of God in that He owes no man forgiveness or eternal life, even if they freely repent and humbly submit to Him as Lord and Savior. Asking for forgiveness no more merits that forgiveness than the prodigal son’s return home merited the reception he received from his father. That was the choice of a gracious father alone.

What about Semi-Pelagianism?

First, it should be noted that the term “Semi-Pelagian” was first introduced in the late 16th century by Calvinistic theologians attempting to combat the rising popularity of Molinism, an alternative method of reconciling the problem of divine omniscience and human freedom.[11]

Calvinistic Apologist, Matt Slick, describes Semi-Pelagianism in this way:

“Semi-Pelagianism is a weaker form of Pelagianism (a heresy derived from Pelagius who lived in the 5th century A.D. and was a teacher in Rome). Semi-Pelagianism (advocated by Cassian at Marseilles, 5th Century) did not deny original sin and its effects upon the human soul and will, but it taught that God and man cooperate to achieve man’s salvation. This cooperation is not by human effort as in keeping the law but rather in the ability of a person to make a free will choice. The semi-Pelagian teaches that man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will and that man can cooperate with God’s grace even to the keeping of his faith through human effort. This would mean that God responds to the initial effort of a person and that God’s grace is not absolutely necessary to maintain faith.”[12]

In my lengthy discussion with Matt Slick over our soteriological differences, he more than once accused me of “Semi-Pelagianism.”

Do Traditionalists, like myself, believe that “God and man cooperate to achieve man’s salvation?”

Let me respond to that by asking this question: “Did the prodigal son and his father cooperate to achieve the son’s restoration, or was that a gracious choice of the father alone upon his son’s return?”  The false belief that forgiveness is somehow owed to those who freely humble themselves and ask for it leads to erroneous conclusions such as this.

Do Traditionalists teach that “man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will?” I challenge anyone to find just one Traditional Southern Baptist scholar who has even come close to making this kind of claim. I’m tempted to offer an award…(maybe a year supply of play-doh or something?)

Do Traditionalists teach that “God responds to the initial effort of a person?”  Of course not! Belief that mankind is able to willingly respond to the gracious means of God to seek and save the lost IS NOT equal to mankind making “the first move toward God.”

If it was proven that I could not call the President of the United States on the phone, would you also conclude, based on that information, that it would be impossible for me to answer the phone if the President tried to call me? Of course not, but that is exactly what those who accuse us of Semi-Pelagianism are doing.

In their shortsighted and ill-informed effort to discredit our perspective, they have resorted to what is known as a “boogie-man fallacy.” This is a certain type of argument, which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling discussion and erroneously labelling an opponent’s position with that of a known heresy so as to demonize and discredit it.

For example, someone in a debate might say, “See, his view sounds like something Hilter said once, so you shouldn’t listen to him any more.” Hitler is a known “boogie man” or “bad character,” so if I can associate my opponent’s views with Hilter, then I’ll discredit him all together.  Likewise, Pelagius has become the Calvinist’s go to “boogie man,” and many of them will stop at nothing to slap that label on us so as to marginalize and discredit anything we say.

This method bears a certain resemblance to the ad hominem fallacy, and comes from the same root motivation: Discredit and marginalize the person and their views rather than objectively evaluating and offering a sound, non-fallous rebuttal. The ad hominem fallacy consists of attempting to refute an argument by impeaching the character of its proponent, where as the boogie man fallacy seeks to associate an argument with that of someone whose character (or belief) has already been impeached (like poor ol’ Pelagius).  This would be like an Arminian calling Dr. John Piper a “Hyper-Calvinist” (those who denounce the need of evangelism) on the basis that he teaches some similar views to that of known hyper-Calvinists.

This is pure “guilt by association” and it is the lazy man’s approach to avoid an otherwise rational and informed discussion of the issues. Those who resort to such tactics either do not know any better or they are nefariously attempting to marginalize and demonize the views of those who disagree with them. Readers of this article can no longer appeal to the former as an excuse.

Added Note: Some Arminians have mistakenly joined in this accusation against Southern Baptist Traditionalists. To read my response to Roger Olson’s critique of the Traditional Statement: CLICK HERE.

And to read a more thorough historical and biblical rebuttal of those who disagree on this issue: CLICK HERE.

To listen to my discussion with an Arminian over this subject: CLICK HERE

[1] [Note: I highly recommend reading this journal article by Dr. Adam Harwood explaining in great detail why Traditionalists are not Semi-Pelagian.]

[2] Matt Slick, CARM Ministries:

[3] Bonner, Gerald (2004). “Pelagius (fl. c.390–418), theologian”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/21784. Retrieved 28 October 2012.

[4] Pohle, Joseph. “Pelagius and Pelagianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 18 Jan. 2014

[5] Loraine Boettner, Calvinism in History: Before the Reformation, web site, available from; Internet; accessed 17 April 2015.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: web page:,+that+almost+nothing+certain+can+be+derived+from+their+writings&source=bl&ots=qBEMo_kr1v&sig=FjMfiVDcr7iliN31rPJ5pVSraI4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiy5YqU3P_KAhVGmIMKHZGXBgYQ6AEIHzAB#v=onepage&q=or%20speak%20confusedly%20on%20this%20subject%2C%20that%20almost%20nothing%20certain%20can%20be%20derived%20from%20their%20writings&f=false

[7]  Calvin Dissing the Early Church Fathers:

[8] Augustine is known for his nine-year fascination with Manichaeism:

[9] The determination of the Council of Orange (529) could be considered “semi-Augustinian.” It defined that faith, though a free act, resulted even in its beginnings from the grace of God, enlightening the human mind and enabling belief. However, it also explicitly denied double predestination (of the equal-ultimacy variety), stating, “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” The document links grace with baptism, which was not a controversial subject at the time. It received papal sanction.[Oakley, Francis (Jan 1, 1988), The Medieval Experience: Foundations of Western Cultural Singularity, University of Toronto Press, p. 64.; Thorsen, Don (2007), An Exploration of Christian Theology, Baker Books, 20.3.4. Cf. Second Council of Orange ch.5-7; H.J. Denzinger Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum, 375-377; C. H. (1981) [1967]. “Faith”. The New Catholic Encyclopedia 5. Washington D.C. p. 797; Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005]

[10] Adams, Nicholas (2007). “Pelagianism: Can people be saved by their own efforts?”. In Quash, Ben; Ward, Michael. Heresies and How to Avoid Them. London: SPCK Publishing. p. 91.

[11] Named after 16th Century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, is a religious doctrine which attempts to reconcile the providence of God with human free will: Joseph Pohle, “Semipelagianism” in Catholic Encyclopedia 1912.

[12] [Note: Ironically there is also much dispute as to whether Cassian actually taught what he was accused of teaching as well: The view that Cassian propounded Semipelagianism has been disputed. Lauren Pristas, writes: “For Cassian, salvation is, from beginning to end, the effect of God’s grace. It is fully divine. Salvation, however, is salvation of a rational creature who has sinned through free choice. Therefore, salvation necessarily includes both free human consent in grace and the gradual rehabilitation in grace of the faculty of free choice. Thus Cassian insists salvation is also fully human. His thought, however, is not Semi-Pelagian, nor do readers who submit to the whole corpus emerge Semi-Pelagians.” [see Lauren Pristas (1993), The Theological Anthropology of John Cassian, PhD dissertation, Boston College, OCLC 39451854]

16 thoughts on “Pelagianism: The Calvinist’s Boogie Man

  1. Dr. (perhaps, future Doc (hopefully)) Flowers asks, “Do Traditionalists teach that “man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will?” I challenge anyone to find just one Traditional Southern Baptist scholar who has even come close to making this kind of claim.”

    The confusion arises because of the use of the prodigal son to illustrate the Traditionalist position. The Calvinist sees the prodigal son making the first move to return to the father, so by analogy, the lost sinner sees his condition and makes the first move to return to God.

    The Calvinist would read the hand of God in the actions of the prodigal son by means of a prompting by the Holy Spirit or full blown regeneration.

    Regardless, the Traditionalist’s use of the prodigal son has led to confusion because he is seen making the first move toward the father (God).

    It would advance the conversation if the traditionalist’s could straighten out their use of the prodigal son to illustrate free will in a way that avoids the “man makes the first move” conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Leighton, I think you confuse the issue of man’s ability to come to God. To argue against Pelagianism based on the definition that it is “the teaching that man has the capacity to seek God in and of himself apart from any movement of God or the Holy Spirit, and therefore that salvation is effected by man’s efforts.” seems to be a moot point since the Bible teaches that Jesus draws all men to Himself. Man does have the capacity (ability) to seek God – he was created that way and God does not change a man in some supernatural way that gives him the capacity to seek Him. Man is even commanded to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness What God does is reveal Himself to all men in a way that they all can know Him and freely respond to Him in faith.


  3. Leighton, After reading your response to Dr. Olson on prevenient grace, I withdraw my above criticism. I agree with your position there completely. I remain puzzled by your use of the word “capacity”


  4. Leighton,

    You begin your essay with: “If I had a dollar for every time I was accused of being a “Pelagian” or “Semi-Pelagian,” I’d have at least enough money to put my eldest through college.”

    I don’t get accused of being Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian very often (the few times it has happened it has been by extreme Calvinists, and a Calvinist troll that you know very well). But if I was accused of it **often**, even if the charge was not valid, it would be a concern. I usually make it clear that I don’t believe that a person can come to faith on their own without the grace of God (cf. John 6:44) and I also make it clear that I believe that God’s grace is resistible (this is seen both in scripture and also if you do much evangelism in the real world you see that some clearly experience the preconversion work of the Spirit in their minds and hearts and yet they seem to be rejecting the gospel and salvation).
    I say this because historically the issue that got the whole thing going was the place of grace in an individual’s coming to salvation.

    Calvinists/theological determinists would argue that is only by grace that a person came to faith in Christ and they viewed their position as “only by grace”. Non-Calvinists then came back with the claim that it is not that we deny that grace has a place in bringing a person to faith (we also believe salvation to be through grace and not merit or works). Rather, we just believe that this grace is resistible. Calvinists and non-Calvinists developed the doctrine of total depravity to explain that a person could not come to faith on their own (guarding against what was believed to be Pelagian or semi-Pelagian beliefs) without grace from God (though disagreeing on the nature of this grace, with one side arguing along the line of determinism and arguing that this grace was irresistible and the other side arguing that as free will is present God’s grace can be resisted). So both sides believed in the necessity of grace, but they disagreed on whether it was resistible or irresistible. The terms “Pelagian” and “semi-Pelagian” were then used to designate and differentiate those who believed they held a biblical view of depravity from those who appeared to be denying depravity all-together.

    From reading some of your posts Leighton it appears that your own “Boogie Man” is Roger Olson because of that one essay he wrote in which he claimed that many Southern Baptists were semi-Pelagians. Olson writes as a historical theologian, and so he thinks in terms of these old categories, resistible versus irresistible grace, the necessity of grace for all to be saved, etc. From his perspective since many Southern Baptists do not speak in these categories, they must be semi-Pelagians. I believe it was unfortunate for Olson to make that claim against Southern Baptists because when they are asked whether or not they affirm depravity most do affirm some conception of depravity (and none seem to believe or teach that the grace of God is not necessary for a person to come to faith in Christ).

    Actually when you look at what Southern Baptists believe it appears that they hold to both resistible grace and the necessity of grace, two beliefs held by Arminians (hence Olson has also said that Southern Baptists appear to be Arminians who just don’t like the label of Arminian). It is too bad that you don’t engage Olson directly on this. Instead you seem to be answering his charge of semi-Pelagianism, but not doing so in direct interaction with him.

    One good thing that has come from your (and others) attempt to answer Olson’s charge is that Baptists have tried to make their views more clear. Hence Traditionalists have talked about their views on depravity, grace being resistible, the presence of free will, that both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are both real and present, how people come to faith in Christ, etc. This clarification of their views by Traditionalists is a very good thing.

    In your essay here you also show that perhaps the views of Pelagius have been unfairly misrepresented. And you may be correct about this. At the same time you have to look at how these categories have been used historically, and again I think it comes down to the issue of the necessity of grace in the salvation of an individual.

    If one denies depravity and sounds as if they don’t believe the grace of God is necessary at all, then the charges of Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian are sure to come.

    I believe it is very easy to avoid these charges, just make it clear from the outset that you believe that the Holy Spirit has to work in the mind and heart of a person in order for them to be saved. If you talk about this preconversion work of the Spirit and the sinful condition of non-saved persons, you will not be labelled Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. If you do not make this preconversion work of the Spirit explicit, then people will wonder: does this guy think we can just come on our own? Does this guy think that the grace of God is not necessary? How is this guy different from Pelagius? We may not ever know precisely what Pelagius maintained, but I don’t think we need to restore Pelagius. I think we need to be absolutely clear about the necessity of the preconversion work of the Holy Spirit. If we are clear on the need for the Spirit’s work then the charges of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian will probably not even come up.

    In some ways it is an issue of perception: do others perceive that we believe God’s grace is involved in salvation or not???

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We should look at total depravity as being an issue of the heart (our personal wisdom, understanding, and faith) .. but the gospel is an issue of the mind (knowledge, reasoning, and beliefs). When God says, “Come let us reason together…” He is talking about your mind with the mind of Christ. Does a person need help in reasoning out salvation? Sure, he needs knowledge in place of ignorance. Given knowledge, a person can reason out the gospel and actually decide to believe it — but that hasn’t touched the heart at all yet. There is no such thing as “saving knowledge” or “saving belief.” What saves is faith in the heart..

    So what turns belief (acceptance that the gospel is true) into faith (complete trust in the gospel)? It is surrendering your wisdom and understanding to God’s wisdom and understanding — His Word (i.e. the Holy Spirit). Many places in scripture help us with this — 2Cor 10:5-6, “Casting aside every imagination and high thing [say Calvinism] that exalts itself against the knowledge of God and bringing into captivity thought to the obedience of Christ.” Acts 2:38, “Repent and be [spiritually] baptized…” Ro 12:1-2, “Offer yourselves a living sacrifice to God .. And … be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”

    In repentance, God clears out your conscience (which is in your soul) .. He gives you faith b/c you have seen His work performed in you, “evidence of things believed,” Heb 11:1 .. and He has given you a new temperament, the first fruit of the Spirit, “unspeakable joy and full of glory, Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” (1Pet 1:8-9)

    Can we agree that the Spirit doesn’t work anything saving in your soul until you surrender to Him? to the Word of God? Can we agree that, by reasoning with God’s Word, we can receive faith and salvation if we submit ourselves to Christ?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Leighton,

    A friend of mine shared this great quote by Adrian Rodgers today. I have always been a big fan of Rodgers. He was a Southern Baptist who really got it right theologically and practically. He was a great preacher and he knew that the gospel message alone (without the work of the Holy Spirit) is not enough. It is the Spirit that makes the Word understandable, that convicts people of sin, that gives people spiritual understanding. He makes it possible for a person to be saved, to knowingly and informed by the Spirit choose to trust the Lord.

    Here is the quote:

    “Spiritual blindness makes beggars of us all. … The blind need more than light in order to see. … I used to think, as a young preacher, that what you had to do to get people saved is just to tell them how to be saved. Just turn on the light. But it doesn’t matter how much light there is, or the person is blind because he cannot see it. It takes more than light, it takes sight. And a person who is blind cannot see the light, no matter how strong the light is or how pure the light is. It takes more than preaching to get people saved. That’s the reason I frequently say to you, I can preach truth, but only the Holy Spirit can impart truth. That is the reason why we must be a praying church. That’s the reason you must be a spirit filled soul winner. That is the reason that we must have the anointing, because we are dependent upon God to open blinded eyes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It takes more than light, it takes sight. We need to understand that nobody can be argued into the kingdom of heaven. Nobody can be educated into the kingdom of heaven. I’m not against letting the light shine. You must let the light shine. You must preach. But remember, there is another dimension.” (Jesus is God’s Answer to Man’s Darkness: John 20:30)

    I know exactly what he means when he says: “That’s the reason I frequently say to you, I can preach the truth, but only the Holy Spirit can impart truth. That is the reason that we must be a praying church.”
    I have said exactly the same thing to the staff that I work with before I give the message to a few hundred people, if we want to reach people when we evangelize, the Holy Spirit has to impart truth, so we have to ****pray for the Spirit to work on people**** when we evangelize. Just the message alone, won’t do it. If you want to be effective in evangelism you have to trust the Spirit to work and pray for Him to work, just sharing with other people is not enough.

    Those who minimize the work of the Spirit, who do not pray for Him to work, who emphasize his preconversion work in the hearts and minds of unbelievers: deserve the charges of Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian.

    Rodgers represents a biblically balanced and theologically accurate Southern Baptist when it comes to evangelism and preaching. He would not be accused of being either Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian because of his proper understanding of the work of the Spirit. He is the type of Southern Baptist that we need more of.

    Liked by 1 person

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