Sent: Sunday, July 03, 2005 8:12 PM

PELAGIANISM is a term more likely to be used in works on Theology than anywhere else, but the essence of this "ism" is prevalent in many practical areas of religion. 

It got its moniker from the fifth century British monk, Pelagius, who affirmed the principle, but he certainly was not its creator. Someone surely must have thought of it before him, for it seems to -- like "free will" -- such a "natural" and logical principle.

B. B. Warfield wrote a good little book on the subject, entitled, "Two Studies in the History of Doctrine," and Augustine wrote about it in his "Anti-Pelagian Writings" in the fifth volume of the "Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers" series, Eerdmans' edition.

The fundamental principle of Pelagianism is that God does not command anything which man is not able to do; or, as it is sometimes stated, "Command implies ability." The point is, God would not command you to lift a rock, for instance, if you were strong enough to lift it. He would not command you to fly across the Atlantic if you had no wings. He would not require you to do the impossible and hold you accountable if you failed.

This idea seems to be logical enough to many minds, but will it always apply? What about the case of Lazarus' being commanded to rise from the dead (John 11)? What about the case of the dry bones in Ezekiel being commanded to live (Ezekiel 37)? What about the case of the man with the withered hand being told to stretch forth his hand (Matthew 12:13)?

How does the principle known as Pelagianism apply to these cases?

It is alleged that original Pelagianism involved a fundamental denial of man's depravity, and some forms of it still make that denial, at least in part.  But other forms of Pelagianism, often called "semi-Pelagianism," have found convenient ways to affirm man's depravity, and yet preserve the basic principle of original Pelagianism.  Two instances of the latter are found in two 18th century "splinters" from the Baptists --


It is rather paradoxical that the Campbellites and Hardshells can seemingly be so different, yet be so much alike at the root.

Both of them were born about the same time (early 1800s), and both of them took the ecclesiastical routes of "patternism" and "exclusivism" to formulate themselves into significant movements. In both groups, a person who maintained a profession of Christianity was held "at arm's length" if that one was not of their faith and order.  Both movements arose during a period of history which was characterized by "anti-missionism," and both emphasized their forms of ecclesiastical "patternism" to undermine what they perceived as evils of the "innovation" of modern missions.  While at first their target was the "methodologies" of missions, in due time they concocted theoretical views of the "Gospel" and the "New Birth" as a more subtle theological basis for their mutual cause -- opposition to Gospel preaching.

While Campbellism is more frequently identified with original Pelagianism, Hardshellism is as equally committed to the view that "command implies ability." 

Both of these "isms" reject the Baptist Confession concerning the New Birth's being by both the Word and Spirit.  Campbellism denies the application of any personal presence (power) by the Holy Spirit in the New Birth, while Hardshellism denies the necessity of the presence (power) of the Word (written or proclaimed) in the New Birth. Campbellism champions the "Word Alone" theory, and Hardshellism champions the "Spirit Alone" theory. 

But the more "fundamental" agreement of Campbellism and Hardshellism is at the point of "ability."  Both affirm that the  one to whom a Gospel "command" is given, and whose "duty" it is to obey, is capable (able) to comply.  In other words, if one is commanded to "repent and believe," that one must necessarily be capable of fulfilling his "duty."  The person to whom such commands are addressed is said to be "alive," otherwise he could not justly be required to "repent and believe." 

Consequently, the Campbellite theology views such a man as being in a natural condition of ability, and Hardshellism views such a man as having been supernaturally endowed with ability by a "direct operation" of the Spirit which they regard as "regeneration."

Their only difference lies in the fact that Campbellites believe a man is given such ability by God at birth, while Hardshells believe a man has it imparted to him by God subsequent to his birth. 

So with both groups, the "duties" of repentance and faith do not result from the creative work of the Holy Spirit as He uses the Word (Gospel) upon the "dead" sinner, but repentance and faith are the "effects" of an "ability" or enablement already given to man. When such a man is addressed by the Gospel, he is already able to obey, as a result of the previously given ability.

Consequently, neither Campbellites nor Hardshells believe that the Gospel is addressed to men who are "dead in trespasses and in sins."  Both believe they address their Gospel to those who are already "alive."  As Hardshell Lassere Bradley once put it, "I don't fish for dead fish, but living fish."

Both the Campbellites and the Hardshells believe that repentance and faith are not the result of the Holy Spirit's use of the Gospel as the instrumental "means," but repentance and faith are "effects" of an ability already imparted by God.

A third party to this concept is the modern Reformed theorist who holds that there is prior regeneration which enables man to respond to the command to believe the Gospel. The argument is made that man is incapable of faith until he is first made alive -- or, in Pelagian terms -- has the ability to believe. This is what I call "Backdoor Pelagianism." They denounce Pelagianism on the front porch, but welcome it into the house thru the backdoor.

This theory, as delineated in writers such as Shedd (Dogmatic Theology) and Berkhof (Systematic Theology), denies the "creative" power of the Word of God as a creative, instrumental means in regeneration.

According to Shedd, with whom the Hardshells agree, the Holy Spirit's operation is "directly upon the human spirit, and is independent even of the word itself" (II:501) ; "regeneration is a DIRECT operation of the Holy Spirit upon the human spirit" (II:506), and "is not effected by the use of means" (page 507).

According to Berkhof, this theory holds that the instrumentality of the Gospel "has no effect on the dead" (page 474). Berkhof then dismisses a few of the passages of Scripture which "seem to prove the contrary" (pages 475-476) and goes on to allege that earlier Calvinistic sources failed "to discriminate carefully between the various elements which we distinguish in regeneration" (page 476).

According to Berkhof, the Word "does not operate creatively" and the Word therefore can "work only in the conscious life of man" (page 470) -- by which Berkhof means, in one who is able to receive the Word on account of a prior "regeneration" in which the sinner is endowed with a "spiritual ear." With this new ability (which parallels the Pelagian ability), "the gospel is NOW heard by the sinner" (page 471).

It appears to us that all three of these groups are advocating the principle of Pelagianism, that the Gospel is addressed to the "living" and not to those who are "dead in the trespasses and in sins." In fact, I have seen this very argument used against giving public invitations -- that is, against addressing the Gospel to "dead" sinners and urging them to accept it at that very moment of time.

This argument against exhorting and inviting the sinner to immediately believe the Gospel is tantamount to a denial of the creative power of the Word of God. It makes the "dead" sinner stronger than the Holy Spirit-empowered Word of God.

They obviously believe the sinner is "dead," but they apparently do not believe that the Word of God is stronger, being "quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).

In John 6:63, Jesus said:

"It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life."

-- Bob L. Ross

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