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Early in the fifth century, a controversy broke out which would leave a lasting impression upon how the Christian Church viewed not only the nature of what it means to be human, but also its view of sin and the power it exhibits in human decision-making. The rift was known as the Pelagian Controversy, after the British monk who introduced ideas of free will, human nature, and the consequences of Adam’s fall that would later leave him and his theories outside orthodoxy as a condemned heretic. This paper will examine Pelagius’ ideas and try to discern why many considered them heretical. The scope of the study will not attempt to recall all the intricacies of the Pelagian debate, but rather will focus primarily on the tenets that even today some adhere to as official Christian doctrine.
The paper will open with a brief life history of the person Pelagius, showing some of the influences that possibly helped lead him to develop his views of man and sin. Afterward, Pelagius’ anthropology and hamartiology will be examined, paying special attention to terms such as free will, original sin, salvation, and grace. It is hoped that this study will not only provide a better understanding of Pelagian thought and the circumstances that influenced his thinking, but also provide insight into his beliefs and their continued acceptance in contemporary thought.
As mentioned previously, Pelagius was from Britain, more specifically from the British Isles.1 Definitive information regarding the exact location of his existence is conjecture, with some locating him in Scotland, others in Ireland. Apparently, there was more than one Pelagius, whereby Augustine used the label “Brito” to differentiate his counterpart from a Pelagius of Tarentum.2 Although he was identified as a monk,3 according to Gonzalez, “it is by no means certain that he was one.”4 There is no authoritative date for his birth.5
What is known of Pelagius is that he was a man of personal piety, quietness, and “of clear intellect, mild disposition, learned culture, and spotless character,”6 even to the point that he earned the respect of his adversary, Augustine. Furthermore, Pelagius was zealous concerning his personal education, learning Greek theology at the Antiochene School.7 Struggling with sin was not an issue with him, per se, possibly due to his austerity, and this probably contributed to his views of man and grace, which Augustine thought contrary to Christian belief.8 According to Kelly, “Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator.”9 In other words, Pelagius was a not only a moralist, but a pragmatist, extolling the virtues of moral action in keeping the commandments of God by one’s own practical strength, while leaving faith in the realm of theory for others to expound upon.10
After leaving Britain for Rome, he became a teacher, explicating upon doctrines concerning human nature that were contrary to typical instruction (see below). In 405 he encountered the theology of Augustine for the first time, and was repulsed by his allusions to man’s ultimate dependence upon God’s grace, in which he excluded the idea of human involvement and works in the salvific process. Particularly offensive to Pelagius was Augustine’s resolution, “Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt,” which meant that God was the sole agent responsible for holy living, and His grace the primary component for accomplishing it. For him, Pelagius did not necessarily disagree that God was the sole author of willing and completing any good work.11 Rather, his main argument with Augustine at this point was that man was as much a part of accomplishing good as God, since man was given the free will by God in order that an act could be performed. In addition, because of the incorporation of free will into man, he was equally capable of doing evil, which when considered as a whole, made good even better, since the choice of doing either good or evil is the apex of what good and freedom are all about. Shortly after this encounter, though, with Augustine, Pelagius disappears from the Roman scene for four years, only to then move on to Africa and the East shortly thereafter, primarily due to the invasion of Gothic King Alaric.
It was in Palestine that the name Pelagius became most notorious in Catholic circles, as in 414 a theological controversy, bearing his name, broke out. This came about, in part, because of a letter he had written to a virgin by the name of Demetrias in 413, in which he gives spiritual insight on her decision to remain a virgin and lead an ascetic life. Both Jerome and Orosius, who were Western theologians, happened to be in Palestine at the time of Pelagius’ delivery of his tome, and proceeded to engage in fierce opposition to his teachings. Jerome attacked Pelagius’ concepts of free will and the ability of human beings to act morally in their own strength, at first in a scathingly indirect letter addressed to a Ctesiphon, where he writes,
Another of your arguments is also intolerable, one which runs thus:
“To be sinless is one thing, to be able to be so is another. The first is not in our power, the second generally is. For though none ever has been sinless, yet, if a man wills to be so, he can be so.” What sort of reasoning, I ask, is this? that a man can be what a man never has been! that a thing is possible which according to your own admission, no man has yet achieved! You are predicating of man a quality which, for ought you know, he may never possess! and you are assigning to any chance person a grace which you cannot shew to have marked patriarchs, prophets, or apostles. Listen to the Church’s words, plain as they may seem to you or crude or ignorant.
And speak what you think; preach publicly what secretly you tell your disciples. You profess to have freedom of choice; why do you not speak your thoughts freely? Your secret chambers hear one doctrine, the crowd around the platform hear another. The uneducated throng, I suppose, is not able to digest your esoteric teaching. Satisfied with the milk-diet of an infant it cannot take solid food.12
Jerome concluded his assault on Pelagian ideology by writing three books in which he records a lengthy discourse between Critobulus, a Pelagian supporter, and Atticus, a defender of Augustinianism. Most of the dialogue centers on whether or not man may remain sinless through the influence of God’s grace. Critobulus contends that it is possible for man not to sin, of his own accord, whereas Atticus rebuts this idea. In fact, Atticus fairly well summed up the Augustinian position by asserting,
We also say this, that God can do what He wills; and that man of himself and by his own will cannot, as you maintain, be without sin. If he can, it is idle for you now to add the word grace, for, with such a power, he has no need of it. If, however, he cannot avoid sin without the grace of God, it is folly for you to attribute to him an ability which he does not possess. For whatever depends upon another’s will, is not in the power of him whose ability you assert, but of him whose aid is clearly indispensable.13
Orosius, on the other hand, delivered a letter from Augustine at the council of Carthage condemning Pelagius’ cohort Celestius. The bishop of Jerusalem, John, however, was less than impressed with Augustine’s authority, and agreed with Pelagius’ position that the commandments of God could be kept by man. However, even though Pelagius managed to escape condemnation at this time, after a series of African and oriental synods, not only was Pelagius condemned by Bishop Innocent in Rome, his whole movement was finally condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431.14 While some of Pelagius’ thoughts have already been seen in part, we will now turn to a more detailed look at his anthropological and hamartiological views that led to his condemnation.
In discussing Pelagius’ anthropology, four preliminary statements essentially sum up his views. They are: (1) Man has an unhindered free will to do either good or evil; (2) Obedience to all of God’s commandments is a certainty; (3) Salvation is possible without the gospel; and (4) God’s grace is unnecessary, except to motivate the reason and free will to accomplish His purposes. The key to understanding Pelagius in this respect is to remember that human nature was not as bad as an Augustine might purport it to be, and human sin was not so comprehensively debilitating that it could not be overcome through obedience to God’s commandments.
While it is acknowledged that when God created Adam He instilled in him the free will to make whatever choices he was going to make, Pelagius believed that even after Adam’s transgression, all succeeding individuals were created with the same free will, in the same condition of innocence. It was not that Pelagius disbelieved that humans could not do evil, it was merely that he thought that by exalting the good in man, and mitigating the evil, he was protecting man’s good nature “from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault in our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either.”15 Logically this led to the fallacy that that which is not within the power of human free will to control ultimately meant that humans could not be responsible for evil acts.16
According to Pelagius, freedom is the ultimate good, “the honor and glory of man, the bonum naturæ, that cannot be lost.”17 In fact, freedom is not truly freedom unless man has the choice of willing both good and evil at the same time for a particular act. This freedom to will good, though, is an attitude under continual development, whereby the more often the will decides to perform good, versus the choice to act evilly, the more virtuous the will becomes in consistently choosing good over evil. Otherwise, the will becomes a slave of vice, or the alternative to practicing virtue.18 This concept of freedom of will naturally led Pelagius to conclude that since man was free to choose good or evil, there was no reason to believe that he could not obey all the commandments which God gave him.
Obedience, at least in the sense of keeping the commandments and laws of God, were not seen by Pelagius as something out of the possibility for man to do. For it was his conclusion that God never commanded something, that man did not have in his capacity to accomplish. To support his supposition, Pelagius cites a long list of individuals of Old that did lead virtuous lives by obeying God’s righteous commands. Some of them include Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Joseph, and Job.19 Therefore, he had no difficulty in asserting, “How much more possible must we believe that to be after the light of his coming, now that we have been instructed by the grace of Christ and reborn as better men: purified and cleansed by his blood, encouraged by his example to pursue perfect righteousness, we ought surely to be better than those who lived before the time of the law, better even than those who lived under the law, since the apostle says: For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6.14).”20
Pelagius further believed that “obedience to God must come from our whole selves.”21 In other words, as evidence of verifiable faith possessed by the believer, one was not to rely solely upon external works of the Law, nor upon the good deeds that one may perform, but upon his faith coupled with his works to establish oneself before God. This was Pelagius’ understanding of what it meant to be justified by faith alone, without works of the Law,22 or the more committed one was to the task, the more likely his faith was true.
According to Pelagius, the possibility of attaining perfection, or salvation, was within the human reach of mankind via his own efforts. All man essentially had to do was avoid sinning, even to the extent of living an ascetic lifestyle if so required, and this despite the fact that no one is aware of anyone ever accomplishing such a feat.23 To disagree with him in this respect was to place the Creator at fault for ordering that which humans could not achieve.24 This further led Pelagius to develop a “defective” view of the Cross, which is essential to completing the doctrine of salvation. Ferguson notes that, “The Cross is not central to his thinking. He was of the temperament which sees in Jesus the example of human perfection, rather than God confronting Sin. It is the moral teaching of Jesus, and the pattern of humility and love which He presented, that show us the way of life…the Cross is an example of how to conquer and a finger-post pointing the road to victory.”25
It of course follows that if salvation is attainable through rigorous self-effort, due in part to a non-prioritized view of the Cross, then the person of Jesus is not all that important either. Such was Pelagius’ position. It was not that Pelagius did not believe that Jesus was God’s only Son, or that Jesus did not do anything significant while on the earth. However, in Pelagian thought, Jesus was merely an example of someone who ought to be mimicked if one were to attain salvation.26 To accept Jesus meant to accept him as a man, and to therefore accept the possibility of walking in sinless perfection.27 Jesus provided the model and the teachings necessary for salvation; it was now up to man to follow his example by abiding by both.28 Couple this viewpoint with Law-keeping and an absolutely free will, and the decision to be saved was left strictly up to the individual, since anyone “may fully obey the law of God and attain eternal life.”29 Jesus’ gospel, therefore, was optional, making it easier for the sinner to actually obey the Law, should one encounter difficulties.30
Ferguson asserts that, “…the fulcrum upon which the controversy with Pelagius turned was the meaning of grace.”31 While Augustine thought of grace as the “absolute necessity,” for salvation and living,32 Pelagius espoused a multi-dimensional view of grace, which was understood more as a superfluous influence than absolute need.33 Gonzalez lists at least three kinds of grace in the Pelagian system: “original grace,” or that which was given at creation to all human beings; revelatory grace, or the grace descriptive of the revelation God gave humankind to inform him of how He wanted humans to live; and, the “grace of pardon,” or that principle which assisted those who exercised their free will to repent and repair the evil they had committed in their lives.34
Pelagius thought of grace as the creative act of God whereby upon completion of creation, and after informing it of its obligations,35 He walked away from it, leaving creation on its own until the judgment day. After that day arrives, humanity will then be judged according to its works, and most favorably of those individuals who were willing in their own strength to fulfill all that, which was commanded of it.36 Those failing to do so are to suffer eternal punishment. “For Pelagius, humanity merely needs to be shown what to do and can then be left to achieve it unaided,”37 at least in the sense that he needs no further prompting since God has already provided the revelation and examples given through grace to perform that which is necessary for a successful outcome.
In order to understand Pelagius’ doctrine of sin, there are three points of emphasis that need to be kept in mind. First, sin is nothing more than a choice to do evil. Second, there is no such thing as original sin. And, third, the consequences of Adam’s sin are confined strictly to him. When understood against the backdrop of the positive human potential that Pelagius had for mankind, sin is less influential and more manageable for mankind to handle than his opponent Augustine would assert. To demonstrate this, let us now look at the first point, that sin is a moral choice to do evil.
Sin is a Moral Choice
As a man chooses to do good, so a man also chooses to sin, or to commit an act of evil. Each was merely an act stemming from man’s inherent free will. Pelagius, however, did not believe that mankind had a natural disposition to sin; rather, through continued habits of behavior contrary to good did a person develop such an inclination. This was a result of continued disobedience to the laws and commands of God, which man was capable and inclined to obey if he would. Berkhof notes of Pelagius’ moral choice theory about sin, that, “Sin consists only in the separate acts of the will. There is no such thing as a sinful nature, neither are there sinful dispositions. Sin is always a deliberate choice of evil by a will which is perfectly free, and can just as well choose and follow the good.”38
Paradoxically, though, Pelagius also thought that before the implementation of revelatory grace (see comments above), “the generality of men were held by a power of sin so strong that not even the law of Moses was able to free them from it. This remains the precise condition of men except as they come under the liberating sway of Christ.”39 Therefore, on the one hand, Pelagius taught that the free will of man was a supreme attribute inherent in the creation of mankind, empowering him to live a sinless life, while on the other hand, sin was a power that rendered mankind spiritually paralyzed, even to the point that obedience to the Law of Moses was an impossibility. It is contrasting beliefs like this that has caused some to question Pelagius’ theological adroitness, especially when he came under fire.40
Absence of Original Sin
Pelagius’ views on original sin came about, in part, as a response to that doctrine’s development by the person of Augustine. Augustine held that in the beginning man was created perfect and free, or posse non peccare (the ability not to sin). After the fall, however, sin corrupted mankind to the point that the entire human race became a massa damnata (mass of damnation), continually producing within itself a progeny of corruption. The taint of sin was thought to be passed on physically through the sexual act at the time of generation.
Bettenson records Pelagius’ response to the idea of original sin when he wrote,
Everything good and everything evil, in respect of which we are either worthy of praise or of blame, is done by us, not born with us. We are not born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil; we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice, and before the activity of our own personal will there is nothing in man but what God has stored in him.41
Brown adds, “Pelagius looked on Adam's disobedience as a transitory bad decision that could be reversed; Augustine saw it as a breach of fellowship with disastrous complications.”42 In other words, Pelagius did not believe that there was such a thing as original sin as that being passed on from one person to another because of physical lineage. Humans, instead, were born as blank slates, without a propensity, necessarily, for either good or evil, yet with an aptitude for both, and sin was merely the result of making a decision consistent with the influences that surround them, while in an innocent state. To say that original sin was an inherent part of mankind was to equate evil with God, since God is the one responsible for creating a man in the first place, and Pelagius would have no part of such thinking.43
Consequences of Adam’s Sin
From the preceding comments, it was seen that Pelagius held to a very individualistic view of sin in the respect that it was a moral choice made according to one’s individual free will. As one approaches the subject of Adam’s sin and the consequences it had upon the rest of humanity, Pelagius consistently applies the same principles of individualism. In other words, Adam’s sin and consequences thereof remained exclusively with him, without any residual effect upon succeeding generations of humans, except other than providing a “bad example.” “Pelagius makes it perfectly and explicitly clear that in his mind the birth of a child is tied directly to the doctrine of creation; that which is in man at birth is that which God created, and God is the Author only of that which is good.”44 Therefore, Pelagius’ response to Romans 5:12, which speaks of the introduction of sin into the world through one man, is, “By example or by pattern. Just as through Adam sin came at a time when it did not yet exist, so in the same way through Christ righteousness was recovered at a time when it survived in almost no one. And just as through the former's sin death came in, so also through the latter's righteousness life was regained.”45
This particular view of Adam’s sin led to a diverse perspective on infant baptism, unlike that of adult baptism whereby the recipient was “to obey the divine commandments,”46 which was a vital condition unto salvation. For Pelagius, baptism cleansed the body of sins, which was contingent upon merited grace through the choice of the individual. Even though infants were created innocent, apart from the taint of Adam’s sin, and were incapable of making the rational decision to be baptized, Pelagius still insisted on the necessity of their baptism. In Pelagius’ thinking, there were two degrees of salvation. According to Schaff, one was called the “vita æterna, or a lower degree of salvation, and the regnum cælorum of the baptized saints.”47 This implied that infants needed remission of sins, despite the Pelagian position of natural innocence. Evans contends that, “Nowhere does Pelagius show that he was able to adjust or to refine his theological language in such a way as to offer an intelligible rationalization for speaking of redemption and the remission of sins as applied to infants.”48
Without a doubt, one of the more influential characters of the early fifth century to impact how the church thought and did theology was the person called Pelagius. He came on the scene during a time when the church had just begun to wrestle with the human constitution and the role and purpose of sin in creation, and its effect upon humanity. Although not technically a theologian in the formal sense of the word, he proved to be a challenging theological foe to those who contended with his ideas, as well as a logically stimulating friend to those intent on living out their professed faith in a world where moral and spiritual purity seemed to be compromised.
Unfortunately, though, it was because of Pelagius’ “weak” theology that his views regarding humanity and sin were over and understated. In other words, as Hodge appropriately concludes, “This system fails to satisfy the deepest and most universal necessities of our nature. In making man independent of God by assuming that God cannot control free agents without destroying their liberty, it makes all prayer for the controlling grace of God over ourselves and others a mockery, and throws man back completely on his own resources to grapple with sin and the powers of darkness without hope of deliverance.”49 This is not to say that Pelagius’ motivation and human effort at living the holy life, and inspiring others to do the same, were necessarily bad or unwarranted. What it does mean, though, is that if it is true that theology precedes ethic, then regardless of the benevolent intention behind the deed, if the theology is somehow askew, then so will be ethic. Pelagius’ theology was demonstrated on more than one account of being less than adequate in its approach to explaining the hopeless human condition and the power of sin to keep it as such. Therefore, it might be rightly concluded that his ethic was less than adequate in assisting mankind with the answer it needed to address the sin condition.
1 John Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons Ltd., 1956), 39.
3 Louis Berkhof, History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 135; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 357; Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, reprint 1996), 3:790.
4 Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, 3 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press,1971), 2:29. Rees notes that, “Pelagius was not a monk in sense that he belonged to a religious community nor does Jerome’s caricature chime with the high reputation which he had acquired in Christian circles in Rome since his arrival there – the very same circles once dominated by Jerome!” B.R. Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Great Britain: The Boydell Press, 1991), 2.
5 Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, 2:29.
6 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:790.
8 Berkhof, History of Christian Doctrines, 136.
9 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 357.
10 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:791.
11 Ferguson, Pelagius, 173.
12 Jerome, “Letter CXXXIII to Ctesiphon,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 6:279.
13 Jerome, “Against the Pelagians,” NPNF, 6:473.
14 Berkhof, A History of Chrisitian Thought, 2:30.
15 Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers, 43.
16 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint 1977), 2:153.
17 Schaff, History of the Church, 3:802-3.
18 Ibid., 3:804.
19 Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers, 40-2. It is interesting to note that Jesus does not show up in any of Pelagius’ lists of virtuous followers of God who kept His commandments.
20 Ibid., 44-5.
21 Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study, 127.
23 Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers, 7.
24 Ibid., 169-9.
25 Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study, 164.
26 Evans records the “concrete modes of behavior” that Jesus example set when he wrote, “By his taking upon himself the form of a servant and in remaining obedient unto death he teaches Christians the humility and obedience proper to themselves; by his bearing our infirmities we learn to bear with one another; by his birth of a poor mother we learn to reject riches; by his not ‘learning letters’ he teaches us to reject worldly wisdom; and so on.” Robert F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (New York: The Seabury Press, 1968), 107.
27 Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study, 169.
28 Berkhof, Studies in Doctrine, 384.
29 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:154.
30 These difficulties were described by Pelagius as “old habits” of the nature. He would say, “Nor is there any reason why it is made difficult for us to do good other than that long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature.” Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers, 44.
31 Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study, 172.
32 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 366.
33 Erickson asserts that when Pelagius spoke of grace, “he meant free will, apprehension of God through reason, and the law of Moses and Jesus' instruction.” Christian Theology, 633. Strong echoes a similar sentiment when he wrote, “Grace…is simply the grace of creation—God's originally endowing man with his high powers of reason and will.” Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 598.
34 Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, 2:32. McGrath cites only two possible usages of grace in Pelagian thought: natural human faculties and external enlightenment. Natural human faculties represented the choice mankind may make whereby he may live sinlessly through the reason. External enlightenment were the examples God gave to man (i.e., The Ten Commandments and the moral example of Jesus), with grace informing “us what our moral duties are, but it does not assist us in the performance of these duties.” Alister E. McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 383.
35 Evans calls this informing or assistance “help which comes of God through the teaching of Christ and his example.” Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals, 109.
36 Hodge points out that, “The Pelagian system denies the necessity of grace in the sense of the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit.” Systematic Theology, 2:154.
37 McGrath, Studies in Doctrine, 383-4.
38 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 234.
39 Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Appraisals, 109.
40 Ibid., 106.
41 Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, (London: Oxford, 1967), 53.
42 Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988), 202.
43 Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals, 97.
44 Ibid., 98.
45 Theodore De Bruyn, Pelagius's Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 92.
46 Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals, 114.
47 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:808.
48 Schaff, Ibid., 118-9.
49 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:156-7.