'Pelagianism' calmly considered: A Response to Lee Gatiss

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I.  Introduction

I have always found Lee Gatiss to be a fine historian, so I was disappointed to see his claims in the recent "Wesley and Pelagius". He points out that Pelagius has been universally reviled and rejected in orthodox (Western) Christian theology, and then he also points out that John Wesley was openly sympathetic to the heretic.  Indeed, he says that he "was actually a fan of Pelagius." But Gatiss goes much further. For Gatiss concludes that Pelagius "taught - well, what do you know! - the same things as John Wesley himself, regarding free will and perfectionism."  This latter claim - that Wesley and Pelagius taught the "same things" about "free will and perfectionism" - is problematic indeed; it is deeply mistaken and very misleading.  

More on that shortly. But first, what are we to make of Wesley's sympathetic tone and posture toward Pelagius? Gatiss is entirely right to observe this; Wesley really is sympathetic to the heretic, and he clearly employs a kind of "hermeneutic of suspicion" about the entire affair (indeed, enough so to strangely warm the heart of a modern or postmodern liberation theologian). But what should we conclude about this? In the absence of further evidence, maybe we would be well advised to conclude that they were in theological cahoots or at least were very close. In other words, maybe Wesley was a "Pelagian" who "taught the same things." 

The problem with this reading is that in fact we do have evidence to the contrary. In fact, we have a lot of evidence to the contrary, and this evidence makes it plain that he is nowhere close to Pelagius. So what should we make of his sympathy?  Well, here is a suggestion. Maybe Wesley was merely showing a charitable spirit toward Pelagius. One can be sympathetic (even deeply sympathetic) to, say, some protestors who stand against police oppression while also thinking that these protesters are mistaken in some of their conclusions and misguided and indeed wrong in some of their actions (similarly, one can be sympathetic to the law enforcement officers and yet be convinced that they acted wrongly). In short, showing genuine sympathy to another viewpoint or person does not equate to agreement with their beliefs or with allegiance to them. To suggest that it does is misleading. 

II.  Wesley on Original Sin

But while Gatiss's discussion of Wesley's sympathy might be misleading, there are bigger problems with Gatiss's essay. For he is simply mistaken when he says that Wesley and Pelagius "taught the same things."  They didn't. Consider what Wesley says about the doctrine of original sin. The Methodist Articles of Religion clearly affirm the doctrine, with Article II affirming that Christ's sacrifice atones for "original guilt" as well as actual sins. But Wesley himself goes further. His treatise on original sin is the longest and densest work in his theological corpus; it is written soon before the more famous work of Jonathan Edwards, it engages in sharp polemics against many of the same debate partners (especially John Taylor), and it employs many similar arguments. In light of Gatiss's claim that Pelagius and Wesley taught "the same things," the fact that Wesley defends the Westminster Confession of Faith - including its federalist account of our relation to Adam - line-by-line is very interesting.[1] Original sin includes, for Wesley, both original corruption and original guilt: Adam's sin is "imputed to all men, that they are born 'children of wrath' and liable to death" ("Original Sin," p. 427). Indeed, all of Adam's descendants "must come into the world both guilty and unclean" ("Original Sin," p. 428). In both his preaching and his theology, Wesley insists not only that the doctrine of original sin is true but also that it is very important.  For instance, he asks 
Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen?  Is his soul totally corrupted? Is... 'every imagination of the thoughts of his heart evil continually?' Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a heathen still ("Original Sin," p. 456).
Wesley is convinced that any denial of the doctrine of original sin "saps the very foundation of all revealed religion" ("Original Sin," p. 194). Thus such a denial "contradicts the main design of the Gospel, which is to humble vain man, and to ascribe to God's free grace, not man's free will, the whole of his salvation" ("Original Sin," p. 429). Subsequent Methodist theologians follow Wesley in resolute affirmation of the doctrine of original sin; they may disagree among themselves about the details of the doctrine (some are federalists like Wesley, some hold to a mediate view, and others hold to corruption-only versions of the doctrine that are much like those of many patristic theologians and of the famous Reformer Huldrych Zwingli), but they insist that we are "totally depraved." I cannot see how anyone might view this evidence - which flows from Wesley's most sustained theological treatment of any issue through his sermons into the major confessional documents and indeed through the major nineteenth-century Methodist theologians - and conclude that Wesley and Pelagius taught "the same things."  

III.  Wesley on "Free Will" and the prevenience of grace

As we have seen, Wesley is absolutely certain that we must "ascribe to God's free grace, not man's free will, the whole of his salvation." His doctrine of human sinfulness is not, he insists, even a "hairs-breadth" different than that of John Calvin. If that amounts to Pelagianism, then one might be excused for thinking that this is pretty good company in which to be Pelagian. Wesley does, of course, disagree with many Reformed theologians about the doctrine of grace. This is not the place for a thorough defense of the doctrine of prevenient grace. But it is found throughout the Christian tradition (in some form or other; I do not wish to leave the impression that there is only one version of the doctrine). Augustine clearly believes in prevenient grace.[2] 

Some interpreters take Augustine (at least the 'late Augustine' of the Pelagian controversy) to be a theological determinist, and they may argue that his doctrine holds that prevenient grace is always successful. But this isn't part of the rejection of Pelagianism. Moreover, Augustine - in his anti-Pelagian works - insists that while no one can come to God without God's prevenient grace, whether we yield our consent to God's grace or withhold that consent is the function of the human will. So while Augustine's view of human freedom will remain controversial, it is hard indeed to deny that Wesley would have a claim to being truly "Augustinian" on this matter.  And it is even harder to deny that his view coheres well indeed - at least as well as Augustine's own doctrine - with the official denouncement of Pelagianism and "Semi-Pelagianism" at Orange (529).
IV.  Wesley on "Christian Perfection"

Gatiss also claims that Wesley and Pelagius teach "the same things" about "perfectionism."  Wesley is justly famous (or perhaps infamous) for his teaching about sanctification and "Christian perfection."  Unfortunately, there is a lot that is less than crystal-clear about his doctrine.  But this much, at least, is clear: while he never shares testimonies (of himself or anyone else) who has experienced it, he does think that Christian perfection is not impossible before death.  And he insists that Christians should be growing in grace as they "press on" toward the fullness of what God has provided and promised. 
Consider these statements:
(A) God, therefore, heals us not only that he may blot out the sin which we have committed, but, furthermore, that he may enable us to avoid sinning.
(B) We do not deny that human nature can be without sin; nor ought we by any means to refuse to it the capacity to become perfect, since we admit its capacity for progress - by God's grace, however, through our Lord Jesus Christ.  By his assistance we aver that it becomes happy and holy...
(C) Now whether there ever has been, or is, or ever can be, a man living so righteous a life in this world as to have no sin at all, may be an open question among true and pious Christians...
(D) Who denies such possibility [of being pure in heart]?  Only it must be by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and not merely by our freedom of will.
(E) But in what place and at what time it shall reach that state of absolute perfection... it is certainly not 'shed abroad in our hearts' by any energies either of the nature or the volition that are within us, but by [the Holy Spirit who] both helps our infirmity and cooperates with our strength.  For it is itself indeed the grace of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit...
But (A) - (E) are not the statements of Wesley. Instead, they are the conclusions of the mature Augustine (all drawn from De Natura et gratia)! To be sure, Wesley and Augustine differ in some important ways on the doctrine of sanctification (or "perfectionism): Wesley's interpretation of Romans 7 is very different from Augustine's reading, his understanding of what "perfection" actually is seems more akin to, say, Gregory of Nyssa's view than it does to Augustine's account, Wesley seems more guardedly optimistic about what we can expect God to do in this life, and Wesley seems to emphasize "cooperation" less than Augustine. But what they do hold in common is both plain and important: Christian perfection is not impossible (before death), and all growth in Christlikeness and progress in holiness is always by grace. So Wesley can be considered a Pelagian on this point only if Augustine can be considered Pelagian - and, again, that seems pretty good company in which to be considered Pelagian.  

V.  Conclusion

Professor Gatiss claims that Wesley and Pelagius "taught the same things" with respect to "free will and perfectionism." But this simply isn't so. There are enough genuine areas of difference between Wesley and the Reformed tradition that draws from Augustine as it is; we don't need to imagine or invent others. More importantly, there are very substantial areas of important agreement between us. Surely we can celebrate these. 

Thomas H. McCall is Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also Director of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. 


[1] "The Doctrine of Original Sin," Works IX, pp. 192-465.

[2] (e.g., De Spirtu et Lettera 60 in NPNR V:110/PL 44:240; De Natura et gratia xxxi:35 in NPNF V:133/PL 44:264; Contra dua epistolas Pelagianorum IV.vi.15 in PL 44:620; Sermones ad populum omnes CLXXIV.iv.4 in PL 38:942-943)

Posted December 23, 2014 @ 2:16 PM by Thomas McCall
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