BioLogos, theistic evolution and the Pelagian heresy
Debating an historical Adam and the destruction of the Gospel
Published: 22 March 2014 (GMT+10)
The secular philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”1 King Solomon, the wisest person in all history said, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9–10).
This is especially applicable to Church history. There is no new heresy under the sun, and those who aren’t familiar with the battle for truth throughout the past 2000 years are doomed to repeat the same errors that have plagued the church since it began.
Today we Christians find ourselves at an interesting place in Church history. Although Scripture has been with us for 2,000 years (and is sufficient for determining how and when God created), we now have decades of research that supports what the Bible has always said. Today we are blessed with mountains of scientific evidence supporting the biblical record of a recent creation followed by a global flood and all humans originating with Adam and Eve. Despite all of this, aspects of an old heresy relating to the creation account are increasingly infiltrating the Church. This is the falsehood known as Pelagianism.
No Adam: no original sin, no need for the cross
The heresy of Pelagianism (see the box below for details) asserted that Adam’s sin had no effect on the human race, that we have not inherited a sin nature from Adam, and that all humans are born with the ability to live a sin-free life. This renders the work of Christ on the cross superfluous. If we can achieve Heaven without any work of God whatsoever (that is, if we have no sin) then there is no need (it is even nonsensical) for God to bear the penalty for our sin. The reality is that at the cross Christ died for us as a substitute. He paid the penalty that we incurred, in our place and simultaneously transferred His righteousness to us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 describes this double transfer. The sinless Christ pays for our sins in our place (so that we don’t have to!), and His righteousness is transferred to us. That single verse is Paul’s simple one-sentence summary of the Gospel. The whole Gospel message is contained in outline in those words and is, of course, detailed throughout the rest of Scripture.
Bible scholars at the time of Pelagius recognized the contradiction between his teachings and Scripture. As a result, Pelagianism was condemned as heretical at many church councils including the Councils of Carthage (in 412, 416 and 418), the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Orange (529). The intervening 1600 years have merely strengthened and further refined the biblical truth confirming that Pelagianism is heretical. This rich history of the battle for truth is a great advantage for us today. When Pelagianizing tendencies infiltrate the church today we should simply look back at that history, remember the error of the past, and avoid repeating the same error. Unfortunately, Pelagianism is alive and well today. One of its modern forms, mutated and renamed, is called ‘theistic evolution’.
Theistic evolution: different time period, same error
BioLogos is a leading voice for ‘theistic evolution’, though not all theistic evolutionists would agree with BioLogos at every point. BioLogos teaches that people do not all originate with Adam and Eve but that, “humans descended from a group of several thousand individuals who lived about 150,000 years ago.”2,3
This organization was founded by professing Christian Dr Francis Collins, a leading geneticist who uncritically accepts evolution over millions of years. Assuming evolution to be true, and ignoring both the Scripture and science against it, his organization exists to attack the historical reality of a physical Adam. In 2010 BioLogos president Darrel Falk wrote (emphasis added): “Option #1 [that Adam and Eve are actual historical people] is the standard argument put forward by those who believe in a young earth created by God in six twenty-four hour days less than 10,000 years ago. BioLogos exists in no small part to marginalize this view from the Church. A fundamental part of our mission is to show that Option #1 is not tenable.”4
Therefore, a ‘fundamental mission’ of BioLogos is to advance anti-biblical ideas that have been condemned by church councils throughout the history of the Church. Or, said another way, their mission is to promote heresy.5 Ironically the subject ‘tag’ applied to Darrel Falk’s article above is “Christian Unity”. According to God’s Word, unity in the Church is achieved as believers rally around the truth of Scripture. Paul writes, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”. (Eph 4: 11-12) The purpose of the various gifts God gives is, “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph 4:14) This unity can never be achieved by teaching against biblical truths.
There are many problems with ‘evolutionary creation’ but one of the greatest errors (among many serious errors BioLogos promotes) is the elimination of a physical Adam from which all people descended and the sin that he transferred to the rest of the human race. This is because it strikes directly at the heart of the Gospel: the need for the ‘last Adam’ to provide for us an escape from the wrath of God against sin incurred by the first Adam. In this way the error of theistic evolution is identical to that of Pelagianism.
Unheeded lessons of history
The lesson from history is this: If it was wrong for Pelagius to assert that Adam’s sin and guilt was not transferred to all humans, how much greater an error is it to postulate that Adam never existed? Theistic evolutionists actually take the Pelagian heresy further than Pelagius did!
BioLogos seems to have forgotten, or they deliberately ignore, the historical fact that the debate over the importance of the doctrine of original sin has already been fought and settled definitively with Scripture back in the 5th century. Since that debate was settled, then how can we today be seriously contemplating the non-existence of an historical Adam? Adam is the historical/physical ancestor of all people; all people inherited their sin nature from him. Santayana’s warning is very applicable here.
Casually rejecting 16 centuries of truth
The astounding naiveté with which some theistic evolutionists play around with the notion of ‘no Adam’ is like a child who’s found his dad’s gun. They toy with this concept seemingly without any idea that it will blow their heads off—literally, the head of the human race, and with it, the doctrine of original sin.6 BioLogos, in response to the question, “How does original sin fit with evolutionary history?” casually suggests that, “Evolution does not raise questions about our current state of sinfulness. It does, however, raise questions about how and when the first sin occurred, and how this fallen state was transmitted to all people. The sciences of evolution and archaeology can provide some insight into these questions but are not equipped to answer them. These questions are theological, and over the centuries the church has considered many possible answers.”7 What those “many possible answers” are is not specified, but what this teaching does not allow is the view of the Church throughout history.
If Adam’s one sin didn’t lead to condemnation for all men, then why should anyone believe Jesus Christ’s one act of righteousness will lead to justification for all men (Rom. 5:18)? This is not like the Church’s error with Galileo or other extra-biblical ideas and traditions that crept into the Church throughout her history. It is a fundamental Gospel truth.
Most theologians throughout Church history up to the present (including several associated with BioLogos) instantly recognize the massive doctrinal problems in postulating that Adam wasn’t historical. Even the article8 in Christianity Today (a paper not unsympathetic to theistic evolution) that alerted many people to the issue back in 2011 included more cautious language than some writers today.9
It seems that a prerequisite for theistic evolutionists is a low view of Scripture, particularly Genesis. You cannot have a high view of Scripture while at the same time mangling Genesis to force-fit millions of years of evolution into it.
Science supports Scripture—all people came from Adam
Other scientists have found problems with Dr Collins’ conclusions. Geneticist Dr Robert Carter has already suggested areas where Dr Collins is in error. In addition, modern genetics provides powerful support for all humans coming from one man and one woman, and even for the population bottleneck at the Flood.
This should highlight something: if other geneticists can see how the data fits with God’s Word, why can’t Dr Collins? It also highlights (again) that fundamental aspect of the origins debate: making distinctions between operational and historical science. Scientific facts are obtained by making observations about today’s creation, not yesterday’s. We do not have yesterday. The origins debate is not the Bible vs science; it is biblical history vs extra-biblical history. Leading evolutionary scientists are not wrong about science; they are wrong about history. Dr Collins, BioLogos and other evolutionists take today’s discoveries and interpret them to fit with evolutionary history—a history that they accept by faith. Other geneticists can not only easily interpret new discoveries to fit with Scriptural history (which is also, obviously, accepted by faith), but the interpretation is often a much better fit.
Science does fit with Scripture, although not the way that BioLogos envisions.
How is error refuted? By the nonstop teaching of truth
Let’s remember the lessons of history so that we are not condemned to repeat mistakes. BioLogos is wrong about Adam and original sin and as an organization desires to ‘marginalize’ Scripture and the Church’s historic position on Adam10. Some believers might think it’s time to simply ignore BioLogos.
However, it is not quite that simple. BioLogos is going into churches and Christian schools drawing away disciples after them (Acts 20:29–30). How will the truth prevail? Let’s look at how truth prevailed in the past.
Although valuable for drawing a line in the sand, no church council ever put a stop to heretical teaching. In some cases (such as the Arian controversy) false teaching gained huge followers after the council that was called to refute it. The heroes in the battle for truth succeeded through extensive speaking and writing. By constantly and faithfully refuting error and putting forth the truth of Scripture over the long haul, God used them to preserve truth and build His Church. Even then, heresies never really die. They may become unpopular for a time but then they adapt, change names, and appear in different shades to confuse and distract the next generation of believers.
Satan doesn’t need to devise new false doctrines when the old ones are so effective. It is therefore likely that refuting today’s falsehoods will require the same nonstop, patient teaching of truth that was needed in the past. Creation Ministries International is only a part of the solution. As one supporter said, “You keep making the bullets and we’ll keep firing them.” It will take effort from truth-loving Christians everywhere to stand up and accurately and patiently, with humility, refute error.
We hope that some of you will partner with us and take up the fight against error. Use the resources that CMI produces. The best place to begin in is your own home. Teach yourself, and then teach your children the truth. Start by exploring the links in this article, or at our ‘Creation Answers’ page. Can you teach at your church? How about teaching through the famous Creation Answers Book with your church youth group? There’s a free Study Guide here. Stream some of our videos and have a discussion. Not comfortable teaching this yourself? Book a speaker into your church. We are here to help.
The heresy of Pelagianism
The Pelagian controversy ignited when Pelagius vehemently disagreed with a prayer written by the famous Augustine of Hippo that was becoming popular throughout Christendom, “Lord, give what Thou commandest and command what Thou wilt.”11
Dr Tom Ascol explains Augustine’s prayer. “He asks for the grace and then acknowledges: ‘Command whatever you will and then give the grace to do what you command.’…You have commanded us to worship, LORD grant us the ability to worship. You have commanded us to pray, grant us the ability to pray. You have commanded us to evangelize, grant us the ability to evangelize. And every real Christian, at his best moment, would acknowledge the rightness of both of those requests. Because when we pray we’re asking God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.”12
However, Pelagius insisted that God would not command something of man that man cannot accomplish. He reasoned that a divine command implies human ability. A favourite saying of his was, “If I ought, I can.” Therefore, he taught that no one inherited the sin nature from Adam nor were they ‘born in sin’. Infants are born tabula rasa (Latin for a ‘blank slate’) and are therefore perfectly capable of obeying and pleasing God. His error here on the fundamental doctrine of original sin led to his belief that a person could live a sinless life. He said that, “a man can be without sin and keep the commandments of God, if he wishes.”13
As a moralist Pelagius reasoned that if Christians are told that God forgives all sin, then they would sin without restraint. He blamed Augustine’s teaching on grace for the moral weaknesses he saw in the church. Pelagianism insists that if people are born sinners by nature (if sin is something we inherit) it would be unjust for God to hold individual sinners responsible for their sin. That is why he reasoned that the human will must be totally free—inclined to neither good nor evil—or else our choices cannot be free. If our choices are not free, then we cannot be held responsible for what we do. So, how can we be held responsible for how we were born?
Pelagianism inevitably results in the purest form of ‘works salvation’. This is because the more that human will is magnified, the more that human works are magnified. If the fallenness of humanity is denied, then to be consistent, there is really no need for divine grace. If we are not hopelessly in bondage to our sin then we really don’t need God’s grace, we just need strength of will to make the right decision. Pelagianism makes salvation by grace through faith unnecessary.
Notice that the foundation of Pelagianism is rooted in extra-biblical reasoning. Turning to Scripture, one single verse can overthrow it, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Romans 5:18
Augustine reasoned from Scripture that before Adam sinned he was in a state of Able to sin and Able not to sin, but by his sin he rendered himself and his descendants Not able not to sin. After death the redeemed saints are glorified to a state which Adam did not enjoy, namely Not able to sin.
Steven Lawson writes, “This was the heart of the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius. Augustine taught that man lost all ability to obey God in the fall of Adam. Because of original sin, human beings cannot perform what God requires. Pelagius, relying on human reasoning rather than divine revelation, concluded that accountability necessitates ability. Despite the teaching of Scripture, he insisted on the natural ability of fallen man to keep God’s law. The main facets of Pelagius’s teaching were an exalted view of human responsibility and a weakened view of divine sovereignty.”14
The great significance of this controversy is recognized by Church historians. Adolf von Harnack notes, “There has never, perhaps, been another crisis of equal importance in church history in which the opponents have expressed the principles at issue so clearly and abstractly. The Arian dispute before the Nicene Council can alone be compared with it.15
B.B. Warfield considered that the issue was a struggle for the very foundations of Christianity.16
Steve Lawson writes, “This controversy was a Continental Divide in the theology of the church, one that separated a God-centered approach to truth from one that is man-centered.”17
A great deal of the credit for the defeat of Pelagianism goes to Augustine. However, Pelagianism continued to influence the Church after Augustine and even saw a ‘revival’ through the influential lectures of William of Ockham at Oxford University in the early 14th century. As before, God raised up scholars and teachers to stand against error and teach truth. Thomas Bradwardine was a voice for truth responding to Ockham’s Pelagian views at Oxford.
References and notes
- George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905 Return to text.
- Were Adam and Eve historical figures?, BioLogos website, biologos.org/questions/evolution-and-the-fall, accessed Feb 3, 2014. Return to text.
- Dr Collins wrote something similar in his bestselling book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, back in 2006. “Anatomically modern humans emerged from primate ancestors perhaps 100,000 years ago—long before the Genesis time frame—and originated with a population that numbered something like 10,000, not two individuals.” Return to text.
- Darrel Falk, On Living in the Middle, BioLogos Forum, June 24, 2010, biologos.org/blog/on-living-in-the-middle, accessed Feb 5, 2014. Return to text.
- The label “heresy” is applied to teaching that represents serious assaults upon the character of God, of Christ, and salvation. It does not apply to lesser disputes such as baptism of infants, pre or post-trib rapture, worship on Saturday or Sunday, musical instruments in the church, worship styles, dress codes, etc. Return to text.
- Edwin Walhout’s article ‘Tomorrow’s Theology’, in The Banner, 3 May 2013, is an example of the kind of casualness (not to mention arrogance) that is common among many theistic evolutionists currently weighing in of the topic of the historicity of Adam. See thebanner.org/features/2013/05/tomorrow-s-theology, accessed 3 Feb 2014. Return to text.
- From the “Common Questions” section on the BioLogos website, biologos.org/questions/original-sin, accessed 12 Feb 2014. Return to text.
- Richard N. Ostling, The Search for the Historical Adam, Christianity Today, Jun 2011, Vol. 55, No. 6, Pg 23. Online at christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/june/historicaladam.html. Return to text.
- Ref. 9 See especially the last part of the article under the heading, “If Paul is Wrong on History”. Return to text.
- Ref 4. Return to text.
- The text for this prayer came from Augustine’s Confessions, Chapter XXIX, written in 397 AD. Return to text.
- Interview video clip in Amazing Grace: The History & Theology of Calvinism by Reel to Real Ministries, Inc./The Apologetics Group, 2009. Return to text.
- Pelagius, cited in Augustine, The Proceedings of Pelagius, 54, in Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol V, ed. Philip Schaff, 207. Return to text.
- Steven J. Lawson, Pillars of Grace-A Long Line of Godly Men, Vol 2 AD 100–1564, Reformation Trust, 2011, pp. 224. Return to text.
- Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma Vol V. Return to text.
- B.B. Warfield, ‘Introductory Essay’ in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: Series 1, Volume 5, Saint Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978. Return to text.
- Ref 14, pp. 223. Return to text.