Re: Defending Pelagius against the Pelagians

From: Jonathan Clarke (
Date: Tue Feb 26 2002 - 16:24:08 EST

  • Next message: Howard J. Van Till: "Re: Defending Pelagius against the Pelagians"

    Thank you very much for this most enlightening post. Most people need
    to be defended against their followers: Luther against the Lutherans,
    Calvin against the Calvinsists, and, dare I say it, Christ aagainst the


    Robert Schneider wrote:

    > This is a longish note and you may want to set it aside until you have
    > time to read it.
    > <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns =
    > "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
    > 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 come…in 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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