Semi-Pelagianism

Semi-Pelagianism (SP) is a heresy that plagued the Church from St. Augustine’s day, for about a century and a half, finally culminating in its condemnation at the second council of Orange. This was not an ecumenical council, but its various condemnations were subsequently ratified by the pope, and so the council’s decisions took on a more universal (in the West) scope.

What is of particular interest to me about this heresy is how it is invariably mischaracterized by Protestants. Now, Protestants are smart folks, and so I assume this seemingly constant mischaracterization of an early heresy is a result of a particular blind spot that they are prone to. And that blind spot centers on the word “works”. It seems that, whenever a Protestant hears that word, they automatically fall into some kind of mantra that they have been taught from a very young age, which must run something like: “works…pride…self-righteousness…pelagianism…law…pharisee…catholic…blah…blah…blah.” And so, by force of habit, they are not able to clearly see the thing for what it actually is.

To boot: one will invariably hear that SP is a heresy in which grace is mingled with works, in which the person has to add to their salvation, or the finished work of Christ is not sufficient. This heresy was condemned in the 6th century. From here, the accusation can go two ways. Either the person acknowledges that the early Church was Catholic, and so the accusation is that the current day Catholic Church has changed her teachings, and is thus not infallible. Or the early Church wasn’t Catholic, and so the Catholic Church stands condemned by the early Church. Either way, Protestantism is assumed to be the answer to the conundrum, by teaching that works contribute nothing to our salvation.

The problem with all this is that the Protestant has here completely misrepresented SP. For the novelty in SP was not that works contribute to salvation, but that those works are not necessarily preceded by grace. This is easily demonstrated by quoting the actual council that condemned SP:

According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul.

So the very council that condemned SP affirmed the necessity to “perform” what is “essential” to “salvation”. One has to either admit that these bishops were of a stupidity so profound that they ended up affirming SP in attempting to condemn it, or that perhaps they actually understood the nature of SP. Further corroboration that the issue in question was not works per se, but rather whether works required grace, can be read through the various canons of the council. To pick one (canon 18):

Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done.

Clearly, the assembled bishops understood that the SPs were claiming that graces need not precede works. But, works certainly are necessary for salvation (for people who survive the car ride home from their baptism).

Lastly, Fr Al Kimel has posted two great articles (here and here) explaining why Catholicism is not SP. Do read.

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~ by Rob on May 16, 2007.

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