Defending Pelagius against the Pelagians

From: Robert Schneider (
Date: Tue Feb 26 2002 - 03:41:31 EST

  • Next message: Howard J. Van Till: "Re: Human origins and doctrine (was Definition of "Species")"

    This is a longish note and you may want to set it aside until you have time to read it.


    In a response to a comment of Burgy's on a comment of Howard Van Till's, George Murphy wrote:


            It isn't sufficient to say that a doctrine is "a human attempt
    > to understand the mystery of God."
    > It's more precise than that. A doctrine in Christian theology is an
    > attempt to specify how to speak faithfully about an important aspect of
    > Christian belief about God and God's relationship with the world.
    > To pursue the present example of "original sin," it is a basic
    > belief of Christians and a teaching of the church that all human beings,
    > though God's creatures, are sinners and in need of salvation. If one
    > wants to try to explain this in greater detail, there are boundaries
    > that must be observed if that basic belief is to be maintained. OTOH,
    > one cannot say that human beings can simply stop sinning if they try
    > hard enough - i.e., save themselves (Pelagius). OTOH, one cannot say
    > that human nature is completely destroyed or replaced by sin, so that
    > they would no longer be God's creation (Flacius).
    > Within those boundaries, various doctrines of "original sin" or "sin of
    > origin" can be developed.
    > Thus there is not simply one "doctrine of original sin" or
    > "doctrine of the Trinity," but various forms of doctrine developed by
    > different theologians or communities. But there are some basic
    > dogmas_ - that the universe is God's creation, that the man Jesus is
    > Lord in the full sense, &c. The formulation of doctrines is not a
    > matter of "anything goes". Doctrines must preserve the integrity of
    > those dogmas, though they may be expressed in very different languages,
    > philosophical frameworks, &c.
    > I anticipate, of course, somebody saying, "But those dogmas are
    > just human statements." Yes, they are statements of human beings about
    > their experience of God's revelation in Jesus. & if that is challenged
    > then I simply have to say, as Luther did at Marburg, "We are of a
    > different spirit."


          I agree with Burgy, and stongly with the comment of Howard Van Till that prompted it, and also with George's modification, especially his comment that there are basic dogmas such as those he cited that need to be preserved. But one thing George wrote caught my attention. The statement "> one cannot say that human beings can simply stop sinning if they try > hard enough - i.e., save themselves (Pelagius)" is a popular and oft repeated expression of Pelagius' teaching. But I am reminded of a remark Karl Marx once made at a meeting of a young communist league. Listening to the discussion, he blurted out, "I am not a Marxist!" I think Pelagius, listening to some of the teachings which have attributed to him through the history of Western Christianity, could rightly say, "I am not a Pelagian!"


          In the context of our ongoing discussion on "original sin" and the question of whether this doctrine is relevant in the light of the acceptance by many Christians that we human beings have evolved from earlier forms of life, I should like to offer a synopsis of Pelagius' views on original sin, sinful habit, free will and grace. I'll rely here on Robert Evan's study (Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals) and also on my own earlier reading of P's fragments On Nature and On Free Will, brief portions of his lengthy Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul (especially on Romans), and his Letter to Demetrias (she was one of those noble Roman ladies the Fathers were always writing letters to).


          First of all, Pelagius never said that we can save ourselves by our own effort, our own "unaided nature." He said that we are capable of not sinning, and that is quite a different thing, as Evans points out. P. rejected the doctrine of original sin as Augustine formulated it because it took away the freedom of the will to choose either good or evil, and he reminded Augustine that he had defended free will in his treatise against the Manicheans. He also rejected it because, as he understood A., it made sin a substance, and if that is the case, he said (in On Nature), "we can shake hands with the Manicheans." Pelagius was in the unfortunate position (as he was with Jerome, the ex-Origenist) of reminding his theological opponents of their former associations, and these reminders probably infuriated Augustine, who was, after all, a passionate man, as others infuriated Jerome, who was also passionate, but in a more waspish way than the sensual A.


          Furthermore, contrary to another one of the "tenets" of "Pelagianism," Pelagius had a doctrine of grace. It was not A's concept of an infused power, but it was grace, nevertheless. Evans identifies five elements. The reason P. believed that we can choose not to sin was that God's first gracious gift was the grace of free will. It is integral to our nature and was bestowed upon us in the creation, and never lost. In this he was orthodox in the views of many Christian thinkers. It is worthy to note that two councils of Eastern bishops declared P's views orthodox. I once discussed this notion of the grace of free will with Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko, and he said he thought P. was orthodox on this point. (Hopko also said of Augustine that "he was a brilliant rhetorician but a terrible technical theologian.") Therefore, answering an objection of A., when we do choose good, P. said, we have nothing to boast about and in fact we give glory to God.


          The second gracious gift is the Law. P. followed Paul in declaring that the law is good and holy, because it had the power to reveal sin. Prior to the grace of the law, we human beings had fallen under the power of "sinful habit" and lost our knowledge of the natural law of our own essential created goodness and our freedom to choose. We sin in imitation of Adam, most immediately by imitating those around us sinning (to my mind a psychologically sound observation); thus sin, over time, gradually corrupts us. We are not born with this corruption, but we acquire it. P. could even say that habit holds the sinner "as it were by a certain necessity of sinning," but it is a necessity that he has prepared for himself, not some inherited power that grips him (I think this is another psychologically sound position). P. believed that the law that comes from God liberates us from our ignorance of the "law of man's nature" that was bestowed in the creation, and that we had lost. However, although God did not lay upon the Jews any moral laws they were incapable of fulfilling, the power of sinful habit remained too strong for the majority, and therefore (exegeting Paul thus), the law did not justify, because the Jews were unable to keep it. Under the time of the law, P. believed (in Evans words), "It lies beyond the grasp of man to know and be what he is and remains." The grace of the Law had to be completed by the grace of the Gospel. P. took seriously Paul's words that Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, and this fulfillment is the grace of Christ.


          The grace of Christ, for P., was the Person himself: in his activities as redeemer and example, in his teaching as revealer. The redemptive grace of Christ is received at baptism, and it is a grace of justification by faith alone(!). The revealing grace that comes from Christ's presence in his teachings is a grace of illumination, by which "he opens the eyes of our hearts" to "the things to that by revealing wisdom he stirs our numbed will toward a longing for God, in that he persuades us toward everything that is good" (frag. On Free Choice; cf. Eph. 1:18). Finally, there is the grace of example. Christ shows us the way to eternal life, and we are effectuated by his grace to follow his example. I see this as a form of the classic notion of imitatio Christi.


          Evans summarizes P. doctrine of grace, as "(1) that original endowment with rational will by which men have the capacity to be without sin, (2) the law of Moses; (3) the forgiveness of sins in virtue of the redemptive death of Christ; (4) the example of Christ; (5) the teaching of Christ conceived both as "law" and more generally as teaching concerning the things proper to man's nature and salvation." Now, it is clear that P.s doctrine is different from the one that became established as Western orthodoxy. He has no conception of infused grace, and he clearly holds that the effectual power of grace requires our consent to it; grace is not irresistible, as A. held. Free will is always preserved in Pelagius' thought: what the power of Christ's grace accomplishes is to make that will effectual again. In this P. ties together the work of Christ as both creator and redeemer. (George points out above that "there is not simply one 'doctrine of original sin'. but various forms of doctrine.." That is true, and the same ought to be said about the doctrine of grace.)


          I should add that Pelagius' views were popular and even occasioned on the streets of Rome some of those theological donnybrooks our Christian forebears sometimes engaged in. And one may well wonder if in the short run the Augustinian view prevailed because of political bribery (those 80 Numidian stallions Alypius gave to imperial commanders) and coercion; too often in the history of Christian doctrine the ends have been thought to justify the means. Why it prevailed in the long run is another story.


          I was attracted to Pelagius' views on free will and grace before my conversion ten years ago, and that experience did not change my positive view, because in reflecting on my own experience of grace, it seems to accord more with P's perspective than with A's.. Perhaps I'll share these things at a later time.


          For now let me leave you with this question: if one accepts that we human beings have evolved from earlier hominid and primate forms, how then does one understand free will and sin in the context of the evolution of instincts, behavior, self-consciousness, and, perhaps (with Darwin and others) of moral sense? Might a doctrine of free will, sin and grace like Pelagius' prove to be more consonant with a new understanding of human nature? I think it is an open question, too soon to answer, perhaps, but worth keeping in mind as we reevaluate theological concepts in the light of the new scientific paradigm and a deepening understanding of human nature.


    Grace and peace to all,

    Bob Schneider


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