Michael Horton, in his book, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church makes the assertion that Pelagianism is the “default setting” of the human heart.  I can practically see your eyes glossing over right now.  Let me give you a little background.

Pelagius was a British Monk (c. 354-after 418) who thought that Augustine’s (354-430) position of original sin was extreme and unfair.  Augustine taught that man is unable to do any good because man, by nature, is inherently depraved.  Basically we were born with a predisposition to sin.  One example of this doctrine in Scripture is seen in Ephesians.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind, (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV).

We also see in Romans 5 that, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” (Romans 5:12, ESV).

Pelagius believed that we do not inherit Adam’s sin by imputation of guilt or by nature.  The only effect, essentially that Adam has, Pelagius would say, is the example that he set.  So from his perspective all are born neutral with no predisposition to evil.  His position was rejected later by three different church councils.  Back to Horton…

Horton contends that semi-Pelagianism has found a home in American Christianity, (pg. 62).

In most cases, I suggest, it is semi-Pelagianism that dominates American Christianity, just as it did the medieval church.  While Augustinianism affirms that God does all of the saving and Pelagianism crowns our moral achievement with the “grace” of acceptance, semi-Pelagianism says that salvation is a process that depends on the coworking of God and humans.

Horton contends that “where we land” on this issue is likely the most significant factor in how we approach our faith, how we live our faith out, and how we share that faith with the world around us.

Update: I thought that it might be helpful to link to a post that Michael Patton of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries wrote in defense of imputation he briefly discusses contemporary positions and the historical theology of original sin.

8 comments
  1. “makes the assertion that Pelagianism is the “default setting” of the human heart”

    ..so does Horton ascribe to Pelagianism?

    I think that this is a tough one Shane.. the nuanced differences between many “believers” and non-believers is not that great.. some non-believers do not seem to fit into the category of being “unable to do any good “.. and it seems that there does have to be a “coworking of God and humans”.

  2. No Horton doesn't.

    He's basically saying that the default setting is to reject the imputation of Adam's sin. Meaning we don't have a sin nature.

    As far as, “not able to do any good” this is looking at it from God's eyes where before Him “our good works are nothing but dirty rags.” Also I would suspect one would have to know the human heart to see the motives behind those good works.

  3. So, to clarify (and make certain I'm understanding this passage of scripture correctly), is Augustine refuting what most would understand the text of Philippians 2:12,13? I read that passage as a collaborative effort in a sense – in that God will not force me to do anything, so there are things that I and I alone can do and must do, and there are things that He alone can do and must do. Is there a different understanding of this passage I may have missed somewhere?

  4. I wouldn't say that is how “most would understand” this passage.

    Well, first off the “working out of your salvation” implies that you are saved. You are regenerated. It means you are abiding in Christ. You are as one commentator, Jac. J. Muller, puts it, “called to self activity, to the active pursuit of the will of God, to the promotion of the spiritual life in himself, to the realisation of the virtues of the Christian life, and to the personal application of salvation. He must 'work out' what God in His grace has 'worked in'”

    So the topic of the original sin nature is dealing with those before they are saved and have experienced being regenerated by the Holy Spirit. After that it is a whole new ball game.

  5. “While Augustinianism affirms that God does all of the saving and Pelagianism crowns our moral achievement with the “grace” of acceptance, semi-Pelagianism says that salvation is a process that depends on the coworking of God and humans.”

    There is no difference between the Augustinian, the Pelagian and the semi-Pelagian apart from petty semantics. All agree that God has all the bargaining power in terms of salvation.

    Imagine a man is falling off a cliff and God catches the man by the hand and pulls him up. If the man lets go of his own volition he will fall, so in some ways it is fair to say that he “assists” in working toward his salvation. Nonetheless all the real power remains with God, though the man may assist by not letting go, the man's salvation is reliant on God catching him in the first place. So really, what difference does it make if we say that God did all the saving, or if God and the man are working together toward that salvation.

  6. Well it matters in our conduct….

    Horton goes on to say… if we adopt Augustinian POV…

    “This means no matter what methods, gimmicks, or excitements one might employ, no matter how much energy is invested in making the message relevant, our witness will fall on deaf ears unless God graciously intervenes. By contrast, if we adopt Pelagian or semi-Pelagian assumptions, we will carry the burden of trying to produce conversions, relying on our own cleverness and communicative power rather than on God's Word and Spirit.”

    I would say that would make a pretty big difference.

  7. You really think so? I can't say that I see a difference at all.

    Last I checked, God seldom produces conversions miraculous (although it does happen, we're talking about very select individuals like Paul).

    For the other 99.9% of converts out there, God's message is delivered to them by mortal men. God gave men the power of cleverness and communication for just such a purpose. Maybe there is a danger in the Pelagin view of assuming too much hubris, but conversely, the Augustinian view is accompanied by the danger of complacency if too much emphasis is placed on divine intervention and not enough on the actual legwork that Christ requires of all of us.

    If a Christian is doing Christ's work does it really make a difference whether the theoretical framework they are using is Augustinian or Pelagian? I never heard Jesus talk about those highfalutin concepts!

  8. Oh I agree with you that there are pitfalls with the Augustinian POV. You are right complacency is one. God does the work, but He has commanded that we are to be His witnesses. Without His intervention though our work will amount to naught.

    I guess I've seen the semi-Pelagian view lead to manipulation – example, “hell houses,” endless altar calls, bait & switch, “Hell's flames – Heaven's Gates” type of stuff.

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