Self-Serving Salvation: Pelagianism and Gnosticism Revisited

American individualism, it seems, has transformed western civilization for the worse.  An excessive emphasis on subjective desires fuels our public discourse. Many today, including many Catholics, turn from Christ to their own interior life for their salvation.  Like King Ahaz of old, they claim they will “not test the Lord,” but only because they see no point in turning to Him (see Isaiah 7:12).  I, they say, control my salvation.

It is in response to such a theological disaster that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently released Placuit Deo, a short document dealing with current errors concerning our salvation.  The root of these errors, the CDF explains, are new forms of two ancient heresies, Pelagianism and Gnosticism.  It is a powerful work, and those interested in seeing how the CDF addresses these errors are encouraged to read the entire letter.  The goal in this article is to present some historical reflections on the two heresies to so that we in the twenty-first century might recognize their unwelcome fruit.


Pelagianism stems from the thought of a Celtic monk named Pelagius who lived in Rome until the city’s sack by Alaric in 410.  Shocked by the immorality he saw in Rome, Pelagius developed a exalted view of free will, to the detriment of God’s Grace.  Pelagius and a companion traveled to North Africa, and there met his theological match in St. Augustine of Hippo, who formulated in answering Pelagius what the Church would later adapt as her understanding of how God’s grace works in our lives.

Pelagianism’s tenets are fairly straightforward.  It starts with the original sin of Adam.  Pelagius held that Adam’s sin did not damage human nature, thereby requiring redemption through Christ.  Instead, our sins are merely our decision to imitate Adam’s original sin.  Christ came, therefore, not to fix our broken human nature, but rather to provide a good example of following God, an antidote to Adam’s bad example.  Salvation comes not through God’s grace, but rather through our own desire for salvation.  We will our own salvation; God has nothing to do with it.

Because of these teachings, Pelagius also rejected the Catholic teaching of the sacraments.  Baptism for Pelagius was not a way of restoring our original broken human nature because we do not have a broken human nature; it forgives sins, but only personal sins, since they are the only real sins.  According to Pelagius, infants did not need to receive baptism to enter “eternal life,” only to enter “the kingdom of God.”

Condemned by councils and popes, Pelagianism slowly died away, remaining in remote corners of the Church (for example, many Irish monks referenced Pelagius’ writings since he was one of their own). A sub-heresy, Semi-Pelagianism, admitted that God plays a role in our salvation, and that we work with His grace, but instead claimed that we make the first step towards God, not God towards us.  The Church condemned in Semi-Pelagianism in 529.


Though later developed into a Christian heresy, Gnosticism technically predates Christianity, coming out of the neo-Platonic philosophical school, which taught that the “most real” things were what was immaterial. Gnostics took this idea a step further, positing that all of material reality is evil, created by an evil god, the Demiurge, against the will of the good god (the Logos), from whom all spiritual realities come.  The Demiurge, as some point, took control over human souls and began trapping them in physical bodies; the only way to escape the Demiurge’s clutches was death.  Thus Gnosticism’s strong hatred of the world, and the human body in particular.  One figured out how to escape the world properly through secret knowledge taught by the Logos.  Once acquired, the secret knowledge would help the Gnostics reach salvation through their own interior, spiritual reflection.

The Christian version of Gnosticism rejected most of the Sacred Scriptures; they equated the Demiurge with Old Testament and the Logos with the New.  Jesus was not really the Logos incarnate, since that would require a physical, evil body; he was either a spiritual man, if he was just a man, or a spiritual creature with an illusionary body.  Thus, Jesus comes across in Gnostic texts as distant from his followers, often without a real, physical body.  Either way, the salvation of Christ for Gnostics was not a matter of receiving forgiveness for sins, but rather consisted of learning the secret knowledge to escape this life.

Christianity has always condemned Gnosticism.  The letters and Gospel of John strongly reject major Gnostic tenets, and the writings of Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies break down exactly where Gnostic thought gets Christ wrong.  One would think the explicit Scriptural and Patristic stance against Gnosticism would keep the heresy in check.  History shows otherwise.  It reappeared in the fifth century as Manichaeism, the strange pseudo-philosophical sect that attracted the young St. Augustine, who in turn became its enemy.

Gnosticism reappeared in a more Christian style, complete with a hierarchy, in twelfth-century France under the form of Albigensianism.  St. Dominic established the Order of Preachers to fight the heresy, and the medieval Inquisition formed to separate Albigensian heretics from orthodox believers.  This later form of Gnosticism was particularly disturbing; the belief that the physical body is evil led to widespread sexual immorality and ritualistic suicide among the Albigensians, as well as societal unrest in French society, hence the Albigensian Crusade called by Pope Innocent III.

And Now?

Placuit Deo examines these ancient heresies and their recent revivals, and then provides a succinct solution to their errors concerning the way to salvation.  Whereas Pelagianism and Gnosticism deny the balance of God and man, spirit and matter, authentic Christianity, as an incarnational religion, is one of salvation won for both bodies and souls by the cross of Christ.  As we recall Good Friday and the cross of Christ, let us remember what He did for us so that we can conform our hearts to His.

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Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.

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