The terms "Pelagianism" and "Semipelagianism" are often used in polemical contexts, but what was specifically anathematized by the church when the Pelagian heresy was originally condemned?


The Council of Carthage (418) was called to address the issue of Pelagius and the charges against him that Jerome and Augustine had brought, as well as Donatus and his own heresy. The council drew up eight canons, condemning a heresy it ascribed to Pelagius. This has become known as Pelagianism.

From the anathemas in the first eight canons of the Council of Carthage, we can deduce the following points of Pelagian doctrine, all of which were condemned at the council:

  • Grace is not completely necessary for obedience (Canons 3-5)
  • People are not born sinful (Canon 2)
  • Death is natural and inevitable, not in any sense a result of sin (Canon 1)
  • Christians need not call themselves "sinners," or ask for forgiveness, except out of humility (Canons 6-8)

The following summary of Pelagianism from B.B. Warfield in The Plan of Salvation [PDF] therefore seems apt:

[The Pelagians] built up a complete autosoteric system. On the one side this system was protected by the denial of any "fall" suffered by mankind in its first head, and accordingly of any entail of evil, whether of sin or mere weakness, derived from its past history. Every man is born in the same condition in which Adam was created; and every man continues throughout life in the same condition in which he is born. By his fall Adam at most has set us a bad example, which, however, we need not follow unless we choose; and our past sins, while of course we may be called to account for them and must endure righteous punishment on their account, cannot in any way abridge or contract our inherent power of doing what is right. ... At any moment he chooses, therefore, any man can cease all sinning and from that instant onward be and continue perfect. ...

The Pelagian scheme therefore embraces the following points. God has endowed man with an inalienable freedom of will, by virtue of which he is fully able to do all that can be required of him. To this great gift God has added the gifts of the law and the gospel to illuminate the way of righteousness and to persuade man to walk in it; and even the gift of Christ to supply an expiation for past sins for all who will do righteousness, and especially to set a good example. Those who, under these inducements and in the power of their ineradicable freedom, turn from their sins and do righteousness, will be accepted by the righteous God and rewarded according to their deeds.

According to Warfield in the same document, while Pelagianism ascribed to man "the whole of salvation," Semipelagianism ascribed to man "the initiation of salvation," which the Second Council of Orange (529) condemned. However, Warfield (a Calvinist) laments that the council denied the "certain efficacy" or "irresistibility" of saving grace, which he and many others believe to have been a cardinal doctrine of Augustine's in his fight against Pelagius.

The blogger Turretinfan provides a helpful summary of Warfield's summary. Note that what he refers to as the "sufficiency" of grace is simply what Warfield calls "certain efficacy" or "irresistibility":

In the set of definitions by Warfield:

Pelagianism [condemned at the Council of Carthage] Denies:

  1. The sufficiency of grace;
  2. The necessity of initial grace; and
  3. The general necessity of grace.

Semi-Pelagianism [condemned at the Council of Orange] Denies:

  1. The sufficiency of grace; and
  2. The necessity of initial grace.

Semi-semi-Pelagianism [condemned by Calvinists] Denies:

  1. The sufficiency of grace.

The heresy of Pelagius was summarized by John Cassian in the 5th century:

At any rate we think that this fact ought not to be omitted, which was special and peculiar to that heresy mentioned above which sprang from the error of Pelagius; viz., that in saying that Jesus Christ had lived as a mere man without any stain of sin, they actually went so far as to declare that men could also be without sin if they liked. For they imagined that it followed that if Jesus Christ being a mere man was without sin, all men also could without the help of God be whatever He as a mere man without participating in the Godhead, could be. And so they made out that there was no difference between any man and our Lord Jesus Christ, as any man could by effort and striving obtain just the same as Christ had obtained by His earnestness and efforts. Whence it resulted that they broke out into a more grievous and unnatural madness, and said that our Lord Jesus Christ had come into this world not to bring redemption to mankind but to give an example of good works, to wit, that men, by following His teaching, and by walking along the same path of virtue, might arrive at the same reward of virtue: thus destroying, as far as they could, all the good of His sacred advent and all the grace of Divine redemption, as they declared that men could by their own lives obtain just that which God had wrought by dying for man’s salvation. They added as well that our Lord and Saviour became the Christ after His Baptism, and God after His Resurrection, tracing the former to the mystery of His anointing, the latter to the merits of His Passion.

Against Nestorius, Book I, Chapter III

Cassian connected the Nestorian heresy closely with the Pelagian:

Whence this new author of a heresy that is not new, who declares that our Lord and Saviour was born a mere man, observes that he says exactly the same thing which the Pelagians said before him, and allows that it follows from his error that as he asserts that our Lord Jesus Christ lived as a mere man entirely without sin, so he must maintain in his blasphemy that all men can of themselves be without sin, nor would he admit that our Lord’s redemption was a thing needful for His example, since men can (as they say) reach the heavenly kingdom by their own exertions. Nor is there any doubt about this, as the thing itself shows us. For hence it comes that he encourages the complaints of the Pelagians by his intervention, and introduces their case into his writings, because he cleverly or (to speak more truly) cunningly patronizes them and by his wicked liking for them recommends their mischievous teaching which is akin to his own, for he is well aware that he is of the same opinion and of the same spirit, and therefore is distressed that a heresy akin to his own has been cast out of the church, as he knows that it is entirely allied to his own in wickedness.


As has been noted in another answer, certain points of Pelagius were specifically condemned by the canons of a local synod of bishops in Carthage in 418. These canons were later accepted by the eastern Sees in a single body through Canon II of the "Quinisext" Council of Trullo in 692.

As an aside, Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of Britain, noted that a form of Pelagianism persisted into the 8th century in Ireland. One might argue that Pelagianism thrives today in the belief, as John Cassian put it 15 centuries ago, that Jesus "had come into this world not to bring redemption to mankind but to give an example of good works."

  • While this is great information, does it qualify as a formal definition by a church? – MR. TOODLE-OO'D Aug 17 '16 at 4:09
  • After I wrote my answer, I saw that you actually answered your own question on the same day, so perhaps you really weren't looking for any additional answers (although you didn't "accept" your own answer :). I agree that the canons you cited from the Council are the closest one can come to a "formal" definition, however I did want to point out that they were eventually adopted by the entire Church and not just by Carthage. Also, given your quote of a modern explanation of the Pelagian heresy, I thought it might be interesting to include an ancient one as well. – user22553 Aug 17 '16 at 19:29
  • That's fair enough. I think this is at least a good supplement to the other answer, so from that standpoint, I've given it a +1. – MR. TOODLE-OO'D Aug 17 '16 at 19:30
  • And last time I tried accepting my own answer here, not enough time had passed so the system didn't let me. But now I have. However, even on self-answered questions, I'm always open to better answers. – MR. TOODLE-OO'D Aug 17 '16 at 19:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.