What is semi-Pelagianism?


Courtesy of Catholic Answers

What is semi-Pelagianism? Recently a Protestant apologist said that the Catholic position on grace is a textbook case of semi-Pelagianism. And is there something called just plain Pelagianism?

The apologist does not know what he is talking about. Some conservative Protestants accuse Catholics of semi-Pelagianism, but most don't know what the term means. (Ask them to define it the next time you hear them make this accusation.)

Semi-Pelagianism was a theological movement common in France in the fifth and early sixth centuries. It was an attempted compromise between Augustine's teachings on grace and those of the heretical monk Pelagius.

Pelagius said the human will freely commits good or evil and that grace is needed only to help the will do what it already can do on its own. He said that we do not inherit original sin, physical death, or spiritual death from Adam. We learn to sin only by following the bad example of our parents and others.

Finally, Pelagius said that Christ does not bring us new life; he merely helps us by the good example he set for us on the cross, and by following his example we gain grace and are saved.

Semi-Pelagianism was nowhere near this extreme, but it still denied important points of the faith. Its basic claims were: (1) the beginning of faith (though not faith itself or its increase) could be accomplished by the human will alone, unaided by grace; (2) in a loose sense, the sanctifying grace man receives from God can be merited by natural human effort, unaided by actual grace; (3) once a man has been justified, he does not need additional grace from God in order to persevere until the end of life.

All of these propositions, together with those of full-blown Pelagianism, were condemned in 529 at the second Council of Orange (can. 5, 10, and 18) and again in 1546 by the Council of Trent (<Decree on Justification>, chs. 5, 6, 8, and 13). It is thus impossible to say that Catholic views on grace and free will are semi-Pelagian, for the Church explicitly condemns the errors of the semi-Pelagians.

Copyright (c) 1993 Catholic Answers. Reprinted with permission from the October 1993 issue of <This Rock> magazine.