This is an excerpt from the footnotes of Jesse Morrell’s upcoming book, “The Vicarious Atonement of Christ.”
Calvinists typically accuse the teachers of free will, like Charles Finney and John Wesley, of being “Pelagians.” However, this is fallacious on many levels, not only because it is used as an ad hominem attack, but also because it is a non sequitur. Just because Pelagius taught free will does not mean that everyone who believes in free will is a Pelagian. The same logic would make everyone who believes in the Trinity a Pelagian, because Pelagius taught that too. But the doctrine of free will was the universal doctrine of the Christian church, long before Pelagius even existed. On the doctrine of free will, Pelagius certainly was orthodox as he agreed with all of the Early Church Fathers before Augustine on that point. (See the article on the bottom of this post that proves this)
Calvinists also like to point out that, “Pelagianism has been condemned as heresy by councils all throughout Church history.” I always find it amazing when the so called “Reformed” and “Sola Scriptura” crowd will point to Catholic councils about Pelagius. They are not very reformed if they appeal to Rome, and they are not sola scriptura if they appeal to councils.
There were three councils that condemned Pelagianism; the Council of Ephesus in the year 431; the Council of Carthage in the year 418; and the Council of Orange in the year 529. This is because Pelagius was not invited nor present to defend himself but his opponents and adversaries stated his doctrine for him. When Pelagius was able to defend himself, the Council of Diospolis in 415 declared Pelagius orthodox. And Pope Zosimus also declared Pelagius’ orthodoxy in 417. He was always acquitted when present to clarify and defend his views. If these are our authorities to determine orthodoxy, do we accept the ones in favor of Pelagius or the ones against him?
In addition, the Council of Orange and the Council of Carthage were not ecumenical councils. They did not consist of Bishops from the entire church, which mean that the rulings of the Councils were not universally affirmed by the Eastern and Western churches.
If heresy is heresy because a council says so, or because of majority vote, Calvinism must be more heretical than Pelagianism was because there were more councils that condemned Calvinism than condemned Pelagianism. The Calvinist doctrines of predestination, limited atonement, and irresistible grace were condemned throughout history. Lucidus was condemned by the Council of Oral in 473, Council of Arles in 475, and Council of Orange in 529. And Gottschalk (Gotteschalcus) was condemned by the Council at Mentz in 848 and the Council of Chiersey (Quiercy) in 849. And what do Calvinists think of the Council of Constance in 1414 for John Huss, or the Council of Worms in 1521 for Martin Luther, or the Council of Trent in 1561 for the Protestants? Are these Councils not the voice of Orthodoxy as Ephesus and Carthage supposedly were?
In fact, the Council of Orange that condemned Pelagianism also condemned the doctrines of Calvinism. If the council is authoritative in the former case, it must be equally authoritative in the latter as well. But if it was mistaken in the latter case, maybe it was mistaken in the former as well.
On the other hand, the Synod of Philadelphia declared Albert Barnes as orthodox in 1829, after he presented his case for rejecting limited atonement, natural inability, and the imputation of Adam’s sin and guilt to all his posterity. And Lyman Beecher was accused of heresy for his new school theology in 1835 but was acquitted by the Synod of Cincinatti. Though “New England Theology” or “New School Theology” was accused of being “Pelagian” by “Old School Calvinists,” it was nevertheless declared orthodox by Christian Synods.
And just so that nobody feels left out, the Synod of Dort condemned the doctrines of Arminianism in 1618-1619. Certainly the Arminian camp should not, therefore, give credibility to councils which determine orthodoxy by popular vote.
But to determine if Pelagius really was a heretic, we should go to his actual words to see what he taught. It is a common error for Calvinists to quote from Pelagius’ opponents and accusers to express what Pelagius taught, rather than to quote from Pelagius himself. Certainly, Calvinists would not like it if people quoted from the opponents of Reformed Theology to state what Calvinism teaches. We should give Pelagius the same honesty and fairness that we would want our doctrine to be treated with.